Patron Saint of Ireland: Who Was St. Patrick?

St. Patrick was a late fourth or fifth century Roman Catholic priest and missionary often credited for bringing the Christian religion to Ireland.

Mar 15, 2024By Ryan Watson, MA History, BA History

 

St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, whose name is now closely associated with the introduction of Christianity into Ireland during the 5th century CE. He worked as a missionary, preaching Christian sacrament all across Ireland, and he also has numerous popular legends attached to his name. Today the Irish (and many others) remember his life and legend through the celebration of St Patrick’s Day on March 17 every year, with music, dancing, pageantry, parades, and more.

 

St. Patrick: Early Origins

The earliest known image of Saint Patrick, from a 13th-century manuscript. Source: Huntington Library
The earliest known image of Saint Patrick, from a 13th-century manuscript. Source: Huntington Library

 

The Confessio of Patrick provides one of the only sources regarding his early life. He writes how he was from England, son of a church deacon and grandson of a priest. When he was sixteen, he was abducted and brought to Ireland by pirates, where he was held in slavery. He escaped and returned to England, where he studied and became ordained as a priest, possibly by Germanus of Auxerre.

 

St. Patrick’s Writing

tiepolo saint patrick patrizio
Saint Patrick, Bishop of Ireland, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1746. Source: Civic Museums of Padova, Italy

 

The two writings often attributed to Patrick are the Confessio (Declarations) and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. The Confessio is an autobiography by St. Patrick, telling his life’s story, and appears to be written as a defense against accusations that he was after personal gain. The Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus condemns Roman soldiers for kidnapping baptized Christians and selling them to pagan Picts. He refers to the soldiers as: “fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works,” and calls for their repentance.

 

Legends Attributed to St. Patrick

1900s St Patrick prayer card image
1900s St Patrick prayer card image

 

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The most popular legend attributed to Patrick is the banishing of snakes from Ireland. The earliest telling of the tale dates from about four hundred years after Patrick, and may originally be attributed to a seventh century tale with Columba, not Patrick, at the center. According to the legend, Patrick stood atop an Irish mountain to fast and pray. While there, he was besieged by crows, and received a visitation from an angel who promised that the Irish would be Christians until Christ’s return, and that they would be judged by Patrick himself. Upon descending the mountain, Patrick came upon some snakes and chased them into the sea. The snake tale is commonly held now as an allegory of Patrick leading the Christianization of Ireland, with the snakes representing pagans, and the crows demons.

 

The Shamrock

shamrock st patrick

 

The shamrock, a symbol long associated with Ireland, was supposedly used in an illustration by Patrick when explaining the Trinity to the Irish people. While the shamrock story also appears much later, it has maintained its position in popular symbols regarding Ireland and St. Patrick. An old Irish drinking tale has Patrick visiting an inn and correcting the innkeeper for her stinginess and dishonesty in not filling his whiskey glass full. He claimed she was feeding a demon in the cellar from her dishonesty, and she needed to starve it through filling her customers’ glasses. On returning later, he found the glasses full, and the demon starved. The Irish tradition of “Pota Phadraig” or “Patrick’s Pot” comes from this tale, where a shamrock is floated on a full glass of whiskey in honor of St. Patrick.

 

Final Years and Legacy

Death of St Patrick, source: Library of Congress
Death of St Patrick, source: Library of Congress

 

Many other tales featuring St. Patrick exist. He is said to have feuded with Druids, converted kings and princes to Christianity, and built churches all over Ireland. Even the circumstances surrounding his death have the tinge of legend. The date of his death is traditionally said to have been March 17, 465 CE at the Monastary of Saul in Ulidia (which Patrick may have founded), in Northern Ireland. The Annals of the Four Masters, written in the 1600s and compiling many Irish histories, tells of two factions that almost went to war over the possession of the body of Patrick. One of the factions was unable to cross a river due to it flooding, and the two sides came to peaceful terms. The annals records: “It appeared to each of them that each had the body conveying it to their respective territories, so that God separated them in this manner, without a fight or battle.”

 

St. Patrick was eventually buried in the grounds of Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, the site of a Benedictine Monastery built in 1183. Many of the monasteries which he may have founded were critical in preserving written works after the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476 CE. Subsequently, St Patrick became a figure of great significance in Ireland, and St Patrick’s Day has been celebrated for more than 1,000 years.

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By Ryan WatsonMA History, BA HistoryRyan Watson is a husband, father, underwriter, writer, and reseller. He graduated with a Bachelor's and Master's in History from Louisiana Tech University in the early 2000s. He focuses on Biblical, post-Biblical, and medieval history with occasional dabblings in other arenas.