We all know that St. Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity, but (setting aside the snakes and shamrocks) most of us don’t know much more about this fascinating saint’s actual life. That’s too bad, because Patrick has much to teach us, even today. Here are fifteen fun facts to get you started.
by Steve Nagel
Editor’s note: Steve Nagel is the author of Paddy and the Wolves, illustrated by Jen Norton.
The story in Paddy and the Wolves comes from my heart. As a child, my mother taught me my name in Gaelic. She could still speak some Gaelic, having been raised in Nova Scotia, Canada—Scottish Gaelic. Nonetheless it’s a bit of history I share with Patrick, who also had a Gaelic name but was not Irish.
Besides that, I took a great liking to Patrick in my reading his Confession. His voice is full of faith in God and doubt in himself. His feelings about his worth and work are undisguised. Patrick did great and good works, but clearly they did not come cheap at the price. His life merits a closer look, so let’s do that.
1. Patrick, the missionary to Ireland, wasn’t Irish?
Patrick was not Irish by birth. Probably he was a Briton—one of the Gaelic-speaking people who lived in the west of Roman Britain, what’s now Wales. Hamlets and farmsteads dotted this coastal region as Patrick knew it. In his own words, he says his upbringing was “simple and rustic.”
This region is a land of mountains and moors, where soil is thin and the land is best for pasturing animals like sheep. Wheat made southeast Britain a breadbasket for the Roman Empire. In the northwest, oats were the main crop, as oats require less warm sunlight and can tolerate more rain. Oats were central to the diet of the Britons—and the Irish as well—cooked as oatcakes or griddlecakes and of course as porridge. (Potatoes arrived on the scene over a thousand years later.)
2. You said Patrick had a Gaelic name?
Scholars think that Patrick was named Maewyn Succat as a child, and that he chose Patrick as his name at ordination.The name Patrick means “nobleman” and is Latin in origin. In Irish Gaelic it’s Pádraig.
3. Patrick may have seen himself to be Roman and British.
Patrick lived within the Roman Empire in the 400s A.D., during the time the Empire was failing, and in fact it had retreated from the British Isles after close to four centuries of occupation. By 407, no new coins were being circulated in Britain, a clue that the Roman soldiers were gone. Even so, the Roman lifestyle survived for a time. We know that as a young man, Patrick lived in a Roman villa and wrote in Latin.
4. Patrick was a Christian by upbringing.
In the early 300s, Constantine ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. And in 380, Christianity was proclaimed the state religion of the Empire, so by then it had become established and organized. Patrick says that his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest.
5. So how did Patrick get to Ireland?
The first time Patrick went to Ireland unwillingly. Patrick says, “When I was a rebellious sixteen-year-old, I was taken captive to Ireland along with many others.” Patrick was set to work shepherding. While he was a slave, Patrick prayed, he says, night and day. “It was there …I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God….”
Patrick’s kidnapping was not a rare event. Ireland was not a nation with a central government. Maybe a hundred tribes occupied parcels.When the Roman Empire fell apart, its wealthy provinces became attractive and vulnerable to plunderers, including the Irish chieftains who turned to sea raiding. Thousands of Patrick’s people were seized.
6. When did Patrick become a priest and missionary?
After six years as a slave and shepherd, Patrick escaped by boat but returned home a changed person. He had a vision in which the voice of the Irish people called to him “‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.'” Patrick left his family again, trained as a priest, and returned to Ireland to bring the Christian faith to its people.
7. Was Patrick successful as a missionary?
Patrick persisted in his efforts for maybe forty years, and his mission met with all sorts of resistance. He was robbed, attacked, and imprisoned, but Patrick never gave up. He succeeded in converting thousands, he says—both chieftains and commoners. Before the Irish, no people had submitted to the Christian faith that were not within the Empire.
8. Patrick didn’t hate the people who made him a slave?
Slavery was everywhere—at the time maybe a quarter of the population were slaves. Slaves were considered merely another kind of property in the ancient world. So it was at least uncommon and perhaps revolutionary that Patrick publicly denounced slavery. Clearly he hated slavery as only someone who had been a slave could.
Late in life Patrick confronted the issue boldly. Here’s how it happened: The soldiers of a British king, Coroticus, attacked Irish Christians, newly baptized, killing and selling them off. Patrick wrote an open letter to Coroticus, condemning this attack in the strongest language: “…you, Coroticus, and your gangsters, rebels all against Christ, now where do you see yourselves? You gave away girls like prizes: not yet women, but baptized.” Imagine it: A fellow Briton and Christian king was murdering and enslaving Christians under Patrick’s care. It’s unclear whether or not Patrick did or could excommunicate Coroticus. Certainly he was calling down the wrath of the British Church on the king. Apparently it failed. And it’s possible that this act put Patrick in the deep difficulties that he alludes to in his Confession.
9. Patrick became a preacher but not a scholar.
Patrick was a slave during the years he might have been a student instead, and he admits his inability to write well and his lack of education. He says, “This is why I have long thought to write, but up to now I have hesitated, because I feared what people would say. This is because I did not learn as others did, who drank in equally well both the law and the sacred writings…” Patrick did not allow his ignorance or the formidable education of other clergy to interfere with his mission to the Irish. He says,
I never had any other reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped, except the gospel and God’s promises.
10. Patrick wrote an autobiographical sketch called the Confession.
Patrick’s work in Ireland went unrecorded in his lifetime. And later on, legends a plenty swirled about. So the fact that Patrick wrote a summation of his life is sometimes lost. It was written in Latin around the year 450. At the end of his Confession, Patrick says just how he wants his life understood:
If what I have accomplished in life has been pleasing to God, in even a slight way, then let no one attribute this to me in my ignorance. On the contrary, let them be in no doubt that it was all simply due to the grace of God.
You can read the full text of his confession in English or the original Latin, along with many other texts by and about St. Patrick, at the St. Patrick’s Confessio website.
11. Patrick’s staff had a name and its own story.
Patrick is often portrayed holding a staff or crozier. It was called Bachall Isu, or “The Staff of Jesus.” According to tradition, the staff was given to Patrick by a hermit. He had received it from Jesus himself, who told the hermit to keep it for Patrick. Legend has it that Patrick stood on a hill and waved his staff to drive all the snakes of Ireland into the sea. In another great story, the Gospel message took so long to get through to the people of one area that the staff took root by the time Patrick was ready to leave.
12. The shamrock is Patrick’s symbol but not the symbol of Ireland.
Patrick is said to have used shamrock in his preaching, perhaps to explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The connection appears first in 1675 on coins called St. Patrick’s Coppers, which appear to show a figure of Patrick preaching to a crowd while holding a shamrock. The idea of using the shamrock gains a bit of support in that the number three held significance to the Irish and they had many triple deities. (The Republic of Ireland has had a harp as its national symbol since medieval time.)
13. The Prayer of St. Patrick was not created by him…but it could have been.
The Lorica of Saint Patrick is a prayer hymn attributed to Patrick. And it has the feel of traditional Irish blessings and prayers. But modern experts date it from the 700s. It is a prayer for protection—the word lorica means breastplate. Here’s a bit of it:
I bind to myself today…
The power of Heaven,
The brightness of the Sun,
The whiteness of Snow,
The splendor of Fire,
The speed of Lightning,
The swiftness of the Wind,
The depth of the Sea,
The stability of the Earth,
The firmness of Rocks.
A lovely tradition has it that the Lorica shielded Patrick and his companions from ambush by a chieftain’s soldiers. Afterwards Patrick’s group approached the chieftain chanting, “Let them that will, trust in chariots and horses, but we walk in the name of the Lord.”
You can find several versions of the Lorica, including one adapted for children, at the Pray the Lorica of St. Patrick article on Peanut Butter & Grace.
14. St. Patrick’s Day is as much an American event as it is an Irish one.
And why not? According to the 2000 census, there are 34.5 million Americans who list their heritage as either primarily or partially Irish. That’s seven times more people than the population of Ireland itself (4.68 million). Irish is the second-most common ancestry among Americans, falling just behind German.
15. What about the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in America?
Well, they began in the later 1700s in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Over the next century the celebration spread across the new nation. By 1900, Saint Patrick’s Day parades became demonstrations of Irish Catholic pride and, later, of social and political power.
And it’s fitting because at the center of this celebration stands Patrick—someone who defended the powerless and loved the Irish with all his heart.
Storyteller Steve Nagel and illustrator Jen Norton have created a children’s book about Saint Patrick as a boy, Paddy and the Wolves, available from Peanut Butter & Grace.
You can purchase this and other children’s books about St. Patrick at Amazon.com.