Who Was Saint Patrick?
Planning to wear green, drink beer, and earn your Luck of the Irish badge this St. Patrick’s Day? Before you do, make sure you know what all the celebration is about in the first place!
St. Patrick’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Patrick, is a cultural and religious holiday held on March 17th, what is traditionally believed to have been the date of Saint Patrick’s death.
Despite being one of Christianity’s more widely known figures, Saint Patrick remains a bit of a mystery. Because he lived long ago, and there are few written records of his life, many of the stories we typically associate with Saint Patrick are myths, exaggerated as they have been passed down over the years.
So just who was Saint Patrick then? We’ll try and separate the fact, from the fiction.
The Typically Accepted History of Saint Patrick
We must stress again that there is little definiteness about the life of Saint Patrick. Many of the dates associated with Saint Patrick’s life cannot be fixed with certainty, but Patrick is generally believed to have been born in Britain towards the end of the 4th century AD, which was then part of the Roman Empire. Sometime during his teenage years, Patrick was captured by Irish pagans and transported to Ireland, where he spent six years in captivity as a shepherd. He came to like the spirit of the Irish, and is believed to have found God while on the island.
Patrick later fled to England, where he received religious instruction and eventually was ordained as a priest. There is broad agreement among scholars that he returned to Ireland to serve as a missionary, with the goal of serving the few Christians already living in Ireland, and to begin converting pagans.
The pagans, particularly the druids, were not easily swayed though. They did not want to give up their old ways of life, and feared Christianity. Patrick, who had become familiar with Irish language and culture, began to incorporate traditional ritual into his lessons on Christianity, as opposed to simply eradicating Irish beliefs altogether. Legend has it that he used bonfires to celebrate Easter, for example, as the Irish used fire to honor their gods. He also added a sun, which was a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross, creating what is now called the Celtic cross.
In less than 30 years, Patrick was able to bring thousands into the Church. He ordained priests, and built schools and monasteries. While much of his life has been embellished over the years, he remains an important figure in Christianity. Today, he is the patron saint of Ireland.
Myths About Saint Patrick
With a better idea of who Saint Patrick was, we can now debunk some of the myths commonly associated with him.
Myth: Saint Patrick was Irish.
Saint Patrick was born in Britain, not Ireland. Since the British Isles were occupied by the Romans for all of Saint Patrick’s life, he wasn’t exactly British either. His parents were Roman citizens, and it is thought his family might have come from Italy.
Myth: Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland.
There were already Christians living in Ireland at the time Saint Patrick arrived. Pope Celestine may have sent a bishop known as Palladius to convert the Irish in the years prior.
Myth: Saint Patrick banished snakes from Ireland.
According to legend, Saint Patrick delivered a sermon that drove all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. While it is true that Ireland is snake-free, it is more likely that this has always been the case, going back to the Ice Age. The snake story may have been an allegory for Saint Patrick’s eradication of pagan traditions.
Myth: Modern celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day originated in Ireland.
The Roman Catholic Feast of Saint Patrick, which was only observed in Ireland, had long been a somber occasion. This began to change when an influx of Irish immigrants came to the United States. They began to organize parades and other events on March 17th to show off their pride. This helped mold St. Patrick’s Day into the more secular celebration of Irish culture it is today.
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