Legends about St. Patrick are legion, and any visit to Ireland or Northern Ireland will include places where Patrick taught and lived. Patrick was a Christian missionary in Ireland, although probably not the first one, who had a Roman name and background. Known as “the apostle of Ireland,” he is the patron saint of the country. Interestingly, in the Eastern Orthodox Church he is thought of as equal to the apostles and called “The Enlightener of Ireland.”
Patrick was active in converting the Irish from the worship of many gods, associated with nature, to his own faith. He wrote an autobiography, called the Confessio of Patrick, and it is probably a good source for his actions and beliefs. (Although we all tend to embellish our lives.) His father was a Roman senator and tax collector, and the family lived in a villa in England during the end of Roman rule in Britain. His grandfather was a priest, probably in Wales, but Patrick didn’t care about religion, one way or the other.
At the age of sixteen, it is said, he was captured by Irish pirates and taken as a slave. During that time, he was a shepherd in north or northwest Ireland. He credits this part of his life for spiritual awakening. After six years of servitude, he escaped and returned to his family. According to his autobiography, he heard a voice telling him he would soon go home, and that a ship was waiting for him.
He fled his captors and traveled 200 miles to a port. He talked a ship’s captain into taking him along. After sailing for three days, they landed, and everyone on board went with him. They wandered 28 days, suffering from hunger, until they came upon a herd of wild boar. Because the animals were spotted while he was leading the group in prayer, his reputation soared.
He had numerous such adventures, and then returned home to his family. Patrick studied Christianity at several French abbeys and became a priest. He tells us, “I saw a man coming, as if he were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters. He gave me one, and the heading read, “The Voice of the Irish.” I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of people beside the western seas, and they cried out, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, come and walk among us.”
Following his vision, he returned to Ireland, landing in County Wicklow at the mouth of a river. He was met with anger, fled, and landed again in a more northern place. He took a breather, just off the Skerries Coast; one of these islands is named InisPatrick. He began his mission, and the first sanctuary dedicated by Patrick was in County Down.
Some historians believe he wasn’t taken to Ireland as a slave, and that if he were a slave escape wouldn’t have been easy or even possible. Regardless, he baptized thousands of people, converted wealthy women who became nuns, and made friends with the sons of kings and chieftains as well as ordinary people. The life of St. Patrick fulfilled a Druid prophecy about a man, fitting his personality and description, who would arrive from across the ocean. (And that he would be crazed in the head!)
Patrick used the shamrock, with its three leaves, to describe the Christian concept of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in one, to the Irish. In their spiritual belief system, three was a potent number, and they already had many triple deities. It represented the power of nature to renew itself; it was a handy way for him to explain the Trinity.
Patrick is said to have spoken with ancient Irish warriors, including the descendants of Finn McCool, arguing about the benefits of a peaceful non-sensual life compared to their lives of fighting, feasting, and living close to nature. There are also tales of men who, when trying to kill Patrick, were instantly struck down with an illness. Another is about a pagan chieftain who owned the land in Armagh, on high ground, where Patrick wanted his church. The chieftain did not agree, and when the chieftain’s cattle grazed there, they died. So, he gave Patrick the land, and his church still stands.
March 17th is the date given to Patrick’s death, and even that caused controversy. Where would he be buried? When that issue was settled, there were twelve days of darkness that included fasting and prayer. He is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick near Saint Brigid and Saint Columba. The Saint Patrick Visitor Centre has exhibitions featuring interactive displays about the life and story of Patrick; it is the only permanent center in the world devoted to him.