Who Was St. Patrick?

Saint Patrick stained glass window Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA.   By Sicarr (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 ]
Saint Patrick stained glass window Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA. By Sicarr (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 ]

St. Patrick is the central figure of the holiday known and celebrated as St. Patrick’s Day. However, few people really know about the man who is remembered on this day. Knowing about the life of St. Patrick can add meaning to your next St. Patrick’s Day celebration and can be a fun way to teach children about the history of this holiday. Here is some information about who St. Patrick really was.

St. Patrick is recognized as the patron saint of Ireland. He figures prominently in the history of Christianity. However, despite his prominence there is little known about his actual life. Historical records have shown us some glimpses, along with Patrick’s own writings, however, there are still gaps in what is known. It has been shown that young Patrick was born to a wealthy family in Britain. Historians tend to put the date of his birth as somewhere toward the end of the 4th century, or possibly at the beginning of the 5th century. His father’s occupation was listed as a deacon in the Christian faith, but there are no records that show that Patrick was especially religious.

St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland.

His idyllic life ended at the young age of sixteen when he was kidnapped by Irish raiders who were attacking his family’s estate. This was a common practice by these types of raiders who would gather up large numbers of captors and return with them to Ireland. This is what happened to young Patrick. He then spent at least six years as a slave. While the details are sketchy about this period of time in his life, it is known that he worked in highly isolated conditions as a shepherd. This isolation at least played a part in his turning to religion for comfort and solace at this difficult time. It was while being a shepherd that he became a devout Christian with a lifelong faith.

At about the age of twenty two, Patrick escaped from captivity. His writings recount that he dreamed that God’s voice spoke directly to him and told him that it was not time for him to leave Ireland. Historians believe that Patrick walked approximately 200 miles along the Irish coast in order to return home to his family in Britain. After reuniting with his family, he recounted in his writing that he had another dream. In this dream he was told by an angel that he should return to Ireland as a missionary. In order to fulfill this mission, he began a strict course of study that was to continue for the next fifteen years. After being ordained as  priest, he then returned to Ireland. He states that his purpose was to be the spiritual guide for the few Christians that were already living in Ireland, and to convert those who were pagans to Christianity.

Because of his years spent in captivity in Ireland, Patrick already understood both the language and the culture of the Irish. This gave him a distinct advantage in being able to proselytize to them. He also understood that he would stand little chance of gaining converts to Christianity without incorporating some of their traditions into his lessons. Some of the things that he did include: using bonfires to celebrate Easter, and incorporating the sun onto the cross (Celtic cross). He used the symbolism of the fire and the sun, since these were signs that the Irish would accept.

Patrick’s death is believed  to have occurred on St. Patrick’s Day. Historians are unable to prove that so it remains unknown as to when this actually occurred.  Whenever he died, the fact stands that Patrick was highly successful in converting Ireland to Christianity, and introducing a new era to the Emerald Isle.

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