Up until the age of 16 Patrick had led a reasonably ordinary life…. Yes, he was the son of a Roman-British army officer/deacon and the grandson of a Catholic priest – but despite this he was not particularly religious…. Not an awful lot is known about his early life….just that he was born in the latter part of the 4th Century, in Roman occupied Britain; nobody is sure exactly where, possibly Scotland but most likely Wales…. It is thought he was raised in the village of Banna Venta Burniae…. Even his real name is uncertain but there are indications it could have been Maewyn Succat….
At 16 years old Patrick (along with many others) was kidnapped by Irish pirates….he was taken to Ireland and sold into slavery. The young Patrick found himself on Mount Slemish in Co. Antrim, where for six years he herded sheep and pigs for his master. Long periods of time alone meant he began to question whether this was his punishment for his earlier lack of faith…. He turned to religion….
It was during a dream that a vision came to him….telling him he would soon go home and that his ship was waiting. Believing this was a message from God, Patrick managed to escape from his master and travelled some 200 miles to a faraway port – where with some difficulty he managed to persuade a reluctant captain to allow him aboard his ship…. Patrick returned home to Britain and his family….
By all rights this should perhaps have been the end of an ordeal that had dominated so much of his life as a young man – but it appears this was just the beginning….
Patrick had another dream – this time he was being called back to Ireland….the people wanted him to tell them about God….
Patrick was to return to Ireland but not straight away. First he went to France, where he studied for the priesthood at a monastery – possibly under Saint German, the then Bishop of Auxerre…. It was 12 years later, as a Bishop himself and with the blessing of the Pope he landed back on Irish soil, at Strangford Loch, Co. Down….
For the next 20 years Patrick travelled around Ireland, establishing churches and monasteries, baptising people and founding schools. As Ireland was a Pagan stronghold very often he would anger local Chieftains and Druids with his teachings, many a time he found himself imprisoned…. He was not above using a little bribery – presenting his captors with gifts in order to regain his freedom….
As is so often the case with saints of long ago, many myths and legends surround Patrick…. One such story is the tale of St. Patrick’s Breastplate: Patrick and a companion were travelling to the Hill of Tara in the Boyne Valley to preach to the people; a place sacred to the Druids, once the ancient Capital of Ireland it was where the gods lived…. The Druid priests were keeping a watch out for Patrick, waiting to ambush him…. But all was quiet in the fields surrounding the Hill – just a deer and her fawn meandering along…. Unbeknownst to them Patrick had used his special powers (feth fiada) to turn himself and his companion into deer – and so using this disguise they were able to reach the Hill unstopped….inspiring the hymn written by Patrick – ‘The Deer’s Cry’ – which begins….
“I arise today, Through the strength of heaven, Light of the sun, Swiftness of the wind, Depth of the sea, Stability of the earth, Firmness of the rock”….
One of the main Celtic Druid celebrations is Beltane….a fire festival, marking the beginning of Summer. A fire would be lit at the top of the Hill of Tara by the Druid High King – from which fires all across the land would be lit…. Legend says Patrick defied this tradition by a lighting a fire of his own before the main event…. The Druid King sent his men to investigate – and they reported back that Patrick’s fire had magical powers and it could not be extinguished….they warned the King this fire could burn for all eternity…. Realising he was unable to put out Patrick’s fire – the King had to concede that the powers Patrick possessed were greater than his own…. Although he refused to convert to Christianity himself he allowed the Irish people to follow the Christian faith….
Patrick was not unsympathetic to the Druid beliefs…. It was whilst preaching one day next to a Pagan standing stone that he created the Irish Celtic Cross…. The stone was carved with a circle – a sacred Pagan symbol for the sun and moon gods. Patrick drew a Christian Cross through the circle, blessing the stone as he did so – thus uniting Pagan beliefs with Christianity….
Being aware that the number 3 held special significance in Celtic tradition, Patrick utilised this as a method of teaching Christianity to the people…. By using shamrock, the three leaved clover plant, he showed how each segment represented God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – three elements of one entity…. The humble shamrock was to become the symbol of Ireland….
For any missionary there must have been times of despair – struggling to deliver a message that must have often appeared to be falling of deaf ears…. One such time of despair for Patrick may have been the time he spent in County Mayo, upon a mountain…. He had gone there for the 40 day period of Lent – perhaps to reflect and meditate – but instead was besieged by demons…. Demons in the form of black birds, so many of them the sky turned dark…. But still he continued to pray, refusing to be defeated…. Suddenly an angel appeared – a messenger from God…. The angel told him his work was being recognised – the Irish people were listening to him and they would remain Christian until Judgement Day…. The mountain is known as Croagh Patrick….
Perhaps one of the legends we associate the most with St. Patrick is the banishing of all snakes from the land, by driving them into the sea…. It is doubtful there ever were any actual snakes in Ireland. The snake is a sacred creature to the Druids….this legend most likely gives the message that Patrick had succeeded in driving Paganism from Ireland….
Although Patrick can be attributed to converting Ireland to Christianity others had preached there before him – Palladius being one such – and becoming the first Bishop of Ireland. Patrick succeeded him as Bishop some time soon after 431AD and made Armagh, in Northern Ireland his base…. It was towards the end of his life that he wrote his memoirs, called his ‘Confession’….
“My name is Patrick, I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers”….
In his writings Patrick makes no reference to details such as the Hill of Tara, driving snakes into the sea, shamrock or indeed any of the myths and legends that surround him…. He talks of his spiritualism, his relationship with God, his time in slavery…. It is a direct insight into the man…. It has to be deemed incredible that these documents have survived all this time….
Patrick died on March the 17th – the year is a little hazy…. He is buried either in Armagh or Downpatrick…. We do know he was made a saint soon after his death and St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated on March the 17th ever since….
There was a wobble in the late 17th Century…. in 1695 Parliament replaced many Catholic feast days with Protestant holidays – after William (of Orange) and Mary were placed on the throne….effectively St. Patrick’s Day became outlawed – but nobody took much notice. Eventually the Patron Saint’s Day was reinstated….
Nowadays modern celebrations usually include a procession to a holy place, a chapel or perhaps a holy well…. Mass and prayers are said…. Then there are the festivities; food, music, dancing and of course a good drink. Falling during Lent a very welcome interlude….
St. Patrick’s Day parades did not actually originate in Ireland. It was in 1762 that Irish soldiers serving with the British Army marched through New York to music on March the 17th – an idea that caught on and became tradition, especially in communities in England with a large Irish population – such as Liverpool…. During the mid 19th Century, at the time of the Great Famine, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were obviously low-key; but – one thing that came from this was the globalisation of St. Patrick’s Day…. Mass emigration – Irish people looking for new lives across the World taking the celebration with them….
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day…. Have a Guinness for me….