Considering the fact that St. Patrick's Day
is the largest Celtic celebration around the world, there are several myths and
misconceptions about Patrick, and much that is not generally known about him.
Patrick's Birth and Enslavement
Patrick was not Irish. He was a British Celt, born probably in the
area of Dumbarton, Scotland, first enslaved and taken to Ireland as a teen, later
returning as a missionary to Ireland. His given name was either Maewyn or Succat,
(Celtic for 'clever in war'). It is believed that Pope Celestine renamed him
Patricius after his consecration as a bishop. This evolved into the name Padraig
or Patrick that we know him by today.
It is believed that he was born in the year 387; to Calphurnius and
Conchessa, in the vicus of Bannavem Taburniae. As Patrick in his writing does not tell us where this is,
it is generally assumed to be in the Strathclyde area. His father was a man of
position and the son of a priest. His mother, Conchessa, was a near relative of the
great patron of Gaul, St.
Martin of Tours.
In his sixteenth year, Patrick was carried off into captivity by Irish
marauders and was sold as a slave to Milchu (or Miliue), a Druid or chieftain in Dalriada, a
territory of the present county of Antrim in Ireland. It was at
this time that the famous Irish King Niall
of the Nine Hostages was raiding with his Scotti and
Pictish allies into Britain and France.
Here he remained for six years, tending sheep in the valley of the Braid and
on the slopes of Slemish, near the modern town of Ballymena. During his captivity, Patrick
learned the language and customs of the land. These he added to the Latin that he learned in
Six years after his capture, he had a dream in which an angel admonished him
to flee from his master. He relates in his "Confessio" that he had to travel about 200
miles; and his journey was probably towards Killala Bay and Westport. He found a ship ready to
set sail and after some rebuffs was allowed on board. In a few days, he was among his friends
and family once more in Britain.
Entreated by his family to remain with them, Patrick felt the calling of the
priesthood and traveled to St. Martin's monastery at Tours, and also to the island sanctuary of Lérins
which was acquiring widespread renown. Patrick put himself
under the guidance of Germanus, bishop of
Auxerre. Tradition states that Patrick was engaged in missionary work in the territory of the Morini
for several years while under St. Germanus' guidance.
When Germanus was commissioned by the pope to battle the erroneous teachings of Pelagius
in Britain, he chose Patrick to be one of his companions.
Mission to Ireland
Patrick was not necessarily the first missionary to Ireland. His main ambition
was to become Ireland's first Bishop, but his monastic superiors did not believe he was adequately
qualified for the position and passed him over in favor of Palladius. Palladius'
mission lasted only a short time due to the fierce opposition of a Wicklow chieftain
and abandoned the sacred enterprise after about a year.
It was Germanus who commended Patrick to Pope Celestine. It was only shortly
before his death that Celestine gave this mission to Patrick and on that occasion bestowed
on him many relics and other spiritual gifts, and gave him the name
"Patercius" or "Patricius". Patrick, returning from Rome, received
the tidings of the death of Palladius, and traveled to the nearby city of Turin
where he received episcopal consecration at the hands of its great bishop,
St. Maximus. He quickly
hastened to Auxerre to make preparations for the Irish mission.
It was probably in the spring of the year 433, that Patrick and his
companions landed at the mouth of the Vantry River close by Wicklow Head. As
before with Palladius, the mission was threatened. Patrick resolved to search out a more friendly territory in which to
begin his mission, first proceeding towards Dalriada to pay the price of ransom to his former
master. Briefly, he halted at the mouth of the River Boyne where he preached to the locals and
performed his first miracle on Irish soil to honor the Blessed Virgin. Leaving one of his
companions to continue the work of instruction, he continued on to Strangford Loughand
and then over land towards Slemish.
He had not proceeded far when a chieftain, named Dichu, blocked his further advance. When he drew his
sword to strike Patrick, his arm became rigid as a statue and useless until he declared himself obedient to
Patrick's will. Dichu gave Patrick a gift of a large sabhall (barn), which became the first
sanctuary dedicated by Patrick in Ireland. A monastary and church were erected there, and the
site retains the name Sabhall (pronounced Saul) to the present day.
When Patrick neared Slemish, he was struck with horror to find the fort of
his old master Milchu enveloped in flames. The fame of his power
of miracles preceeded him. Milchu had gathered his
treasures into his mansion and setting it on fire, cast himself into the flames.
The ancient records read: "His pride could not endure the thought of being
vanquished by his former slave".
Returning to Sabhall, St. Patrick learned that the chieftains of
Ireland had been summoned to celebrate a special feast at Tara by Leoghaire, who was the
Ard-Righ. During the journey, while staying at the stronghold of a chieftain named
Secsnen, Benignus (Benen), son of the chief, was baptised and became the inseparable companion of the
saint, and Patrick's prophecy concerning him was fulfilled, for Benen is named among the
"comhards" or successors of St. Patrick in Armagh.
On Easter Sunday, in 433,
the feast was to begin, and a decree went forth that from the preceeding day the fires throughout the kingdom
should be extinguished until the signal blaze was kindled at Tara. Patrick arrived at
the hill of
Slane, at the opposite end of the valley on Easter Eve. In defiance and
preparation for the feast of the Annunciation, Patrick kindled the Paschal fire
on the summit. The druids at once raised their voice. "O
King", live for ever; this fire, which has been lighted
in defiance of the royal edict, will blaze for ever in this land unless it be
this very night extinguished." By order of the king, the druids made repeated attempts
to extinguish the fire and to kill those
that had disobeyed the royal command. But the fire was
not extinguished and Patrick came away unharmed. Easter morning, Patrick's group
led by Benignus holding aloft a copy of the Gospels, and followed by Patrick in full episcopal attire,
proceeded to Tara. The druids tried to bar his way with darkness and magic. The
Archdruid Lochru was lifted up high in the air by his magic, but when Patrick knelt in prayer the druid
was dashed to pieces upon a rock. Twice Patrick pleaded his case before Leoghaire. The king had given
orders that no sign of respect was to be extended to the strangers, but at the
first meeting Erc, a royal page, arose to show him reverence; and
at the second, when all the chieftains were assembled, the chief-bard Dubhtach
showed the same honor to him. It was on this
second occasion that Patrick is said to have plucked a shamrock, to explain by its triple leaf and single
stem, the church doctrine of the Trinity. Leoghaire granted permission to Patrick to preach the Faith
throughout the length and breadth of the land.
During the ensuing feast games, a few miles distant at Tailten (Telltown),
Patrick baptised Conall, brother of the Ard-Righ, on Wednesday, 5 April. This was
the first public baptism, recognized by royal edict, and hence
in the ancient Irish Kalendars, the fifth of April is assigned "the
beginning of the Baptism of Erin". A site for a church which to the present day retains
the name of Donagh-Patrick was presented by Conall.
Some of the chieftains who had come to Tara were from Focluth, in the neighborhood of Killala, in
Connaught. As the vision that had summoned Patrick to return to Ireland was of
the children of Focluth, he resolved to accompany those chieftains home. Even though
Leoghaire had given Patrick full liberty to preach throughout Ireland, Patrick
still had to procure a safe conduct through the intervening territories for the price of fifteen slaves.
On the way, Patrick learned that at Magh-Slecht, a vast henge was used in offering worship to
Crom-Cruach. It was
a huge upright, covered with slabs of gold and silver, with a circle of
twelve minor stones around it. Patrick smote the main stone with his crosier and
it crumbled into dust and the others fell to the ground.
In 440CE, Patrick began the work of the conversion of Ulster,
for under the following year, the annals relate the spread of the
Faith throughout the province. In 444, a site for a church was granted at Armagh
by Daire, the chieftain of the district. From Ulster, Patrick probably proceeded to Meath, and thence
on into Leinster. Patrick's primary function was to gather the ruling chieftains into the fold.
Once accomplished, members of his mission and converted nobility were installed
to continue the mission. At Naas in Leinster, Patrick baptised two sons of the King of
Leinster. At Sletty near Carlow, St.
Fiacc, son of the chief Bard Dubhtach, was installed as bishop, and his see became the chief centre of religion for all
Leinster. In Ossory, Patrick erected a church under the invocation of St. Martin, near the present city of
It was in Leinster, on the borders of the present counties of Kildare and Queen's, that
Odhran, Patrick's charioteer, was martyred. The chieftain of
that district worshiped Crom Cruach and vowed to avenge the insult done to the
Magh-Slecht site by killing Patrick. Odhran overheard the plot, and as they were setting out
in the chariot to continue their journey, requested that he be allowed to hold the place of honour and
rest. Patrick granted his wish, and scarcely had they set out when a lance pierced the heart of the devoted
follower, who by changing places thus saved Patrick's life.
Patrick next proceeded to Munster. At Cashel, he baptised Aengus, son of the King of
Munster. During the ceremony, Patrick accidentally pierced the prince's foot with
the sharp point of his crozier. Aengus bore the pain unmoved. When Patrick, at the close of
the ceremony, asked him why he had been silent, he replied, that he thought it might be part of the
ceremony. The saint admired his heroism, and taking the chieftain's shield, inscribed on it a cross
with the same point of the crozier, and promised that that shield would be the
signal of countless spiritual and temporal triumphs.
Patrick tells us in his "Confessio" that no fewer
than twelve times he and his companions were seized and carried off as captives,
and on one occasion in particular he was chained and his death was
decreed. But Patrick continued until his death to visit and watch over the churches
which he had founded in all the provinces in Ireland. It is recorded in
his Life that he consecrated no fewer than 350 bishops. From time to time, he withdrew
from the spiritual duties to devote himself wholly to prayer and penance.
One of his chosen places of solitude and retreat was the island of Lough Derg, now known as
St. Patrick's Purgatory. In
the far west of Connaught there is a range of tall mountains. At the
head of this range stands Croagh Patrick,
i.e. St. Patrick's mountain, which is honoured as the Holy Hill, the Mount Sinai,
of Ireland. Patrick, in obedience to his guardian angel, made this mountain one
of his places of retreat and some of the stories state that this is also where
his ministry to Ireland began.
Tradition fondly points out the impression of
St. Patrick's foot upon the hard rock — off the main shore, at the entrance to
Skerries harbour, which in olden times was known as Holm Patrick. Croagh Patrick is situated five
miles from Westport and the mountain provides a beautiful backdrop to the
surrounding countryside. The mountain has been considered a sacred mountain by
the Irish people for over five thousand years. In 441 CE, it is said that St.
Patrick spent 40 days and 40 nights praying and fasting on the mountain top. It
is also said that this is the mountain from which St. Patrick banished the
snakes from Ireland. Every year on the last Sunday of July over 60,000 people
make the ascent up the mountain, many of them barefoot, to fast and pray. Near
the base of the mountain is Tobair Padraig, or Patrick's Well, named for the
natural spring nearby where Patrick baptized his first Irish converts. A white
stone statue of St. Patrick holding a green clover up to the heavens stands at
the beginning of the trail up to the mountain.
Driving out the Snakes
There were never snakes---or other reptiles---in Ireland
for Patrick to chase out.
The traditional drink of whiskey known as "Pota Phadraig"
According to the legend, Patrick was shortchanged on a shot of whiskey and told
the landlord that the devil was in his cellar gorging himself on
the landlord's dishonesty. Terrified by this prospect, the landlord vowed to
change his ways and when Patrick returned to the tavern some time later, he
found that the landlord now filled everyone's glass to overflowing! Patrick then announced
that the landlord's newfound generosity was
"starving the devil in his cellar," and proclaimed that thereafter
everyone should have a drop of the 'hard stuff' on his feast day: Patrick's Pot.
The tradition is also known as "drowning the Shamrock" because of the
custom of floating a shamrock in the whiskey before swallowing it.
After over 30 years of missionary work, Patrick retired
to Sabhall in County
Down. Toward the end, legend states that St. Brigid came to him with her chosen virgins,
bringing the shroud in which he would be enshrined. It is recorded that when Patrick and
Brigid were united in their last prayer, a special vision was shown to him. He saw the whole
of Ireland lit up with the brightest rays of Divine Faith. This continued for
centuries, and then clouds gathered around the devoted island, and, little by
little, the religious glory faded away, until, in the course of centuries, it
was only in the remotest valleys that some glimmer of its light remained. Patrick prayed that the light would never be extinguished, and, as he prayed,
the angel came to him and said: "Fear not: your apostolate shall never
cease." As he thus prayed, the glimmering light grew in brightness, and
ceased not until once more all the hills and valleys of Ireland were lit up, and then the angel announced to St. Patrick:
"Such shall be the abiding splendour of Divine truth in Ireland."
He died around 461CE, purportedly on March 17.
St. Tassach administered the last sacraments to him. His remains were wrapped in
the shroud woven by St. Brigid's own hands. The bishops and clergy and faithful
people from all parts crowded around his remains to pay due honor. Some of the ancient
Lives record that for several days the light of heaven shone around his bier. His remains
were interred at the chieftan's Dun two miles from Sabhall, where in after times
arose the cathedral of Down. This anniversary is now celebrated
annually by many, through parades and various other activities.
The only existing genuine documents we have from Patrick are his
and a letter he wrote to Coroticus, "Epistola ad Coroticum". The beautiful
prayer, known as "Faeth Fiada", The
Shield of St Patrick, or the "Lorica of St. Patrick" (St. Patrick's Breast-Plate),
first published by Petrie in his "History of Tara", is generally accepted as genuine.
The 34 canons of a synod held before the year 460 by Patrick, Auxilius, and
Isserninus, though rejected by some, is also considered as having some validity.
Another series of 31 ecclesiastical canons entitled "Synodus secunda
Patritii", though unquestionably of Irish origin and dating before the
close of the seventh century, is generally considered to be of a later date than
St. Patrick. Two tracts, "De abusionibus
saeculi", and "De Tribus habitaculis", were composed b Patrick in Irish and translated into Latin at a later period. Passages from them
are assigned to Patrick in the "Collectio Hibernensis Canonum",
which is of unquestionable authority and dates from the year 700
(Wasserschleben, 2nd ed., 1885). The
"Dicta Sancti Patritii", or brief sayings of the saint, preserved in
the "Book of Armagh", are accurately edited by Fr. Hogan, S.J., in
"Documenta de S. Patritio" (Brussels, 1884). The old Irish text of
"The Rule of Patrick" has been edited by O'Keeffe, and a translation
by Archbishop Healy in the appendix to his Life of St. Patrick (Dublin, 1905).
It is a tract of venerable antiquity, and embodies the teaching of the saint.
Information in this paragraph and some of the information in the paraphrased
life above is from the Catholic Encyclopedia.