Patrick, Patron of Ireland
The work of a missionary from somewhere in the west of Britain
was crucial to the conversion of Ireland to the Christian faith
in the 5th centuryAD. He was a Romanised Celt called Patricius,
son of a deacon and grandson of a priest. At the age of sixteen
he was seized by an Irish raiding party near his home and brought
across the sea to this country, where he was sold as a slave.
After several years herding animals in lonely places, he managed
to escape, and made his way to the Continent, where he studied
for the priesthood. One night in his sleep he dreamed that a
voice called to him to return to Ireland and to 'walk once more
amongst us'. The compassionate and determined way in which he
answered that mystical request has caused him to be known and
loved ever since as Naomh Padraig, or Saint Patrick, patron of
We know this much of his life-story from one of the few documents written by Patrick himself, his Confessio. But, unfortunately, we know little else of the precise details of his actual mission, for he gives but very scant detail of either time or place. To him his work was principally a spiritual task, the gaining of souls for God, and thus he wrote in a private rather than an annalistic mode. Traditionally the dates 432 AD to 461 AD have been given for his mission in Ireland, and there is little doubt but that his feast-day, March 17, was the date of his death. Although there were some scattered Christian communities in Ireland before his arrival, it is clear that the impetus for the general change to Christianity throughout the land was due to him personally and to his work.
Almost two hundred years after his time, two biographies of him were written, by monks called Muirchú and Tíreachán. Both of these were acquainted with the writings of the saint himself and also with some traditions concerning him. But they invented much, and borrowed material from the Bible and other early Christian literature in order to portray him as a special prophet sent by God to the Irish people. As a result, modern scholars regard these and later mediaeval biographies of the saint as having no historical value, except for the study of how legends develop around the name of a famous person.
These fanciful texts do, however, have some curious accounts which seem to echo the preaching of Patrick himself. For instance, in the Confessio he contrasted the idols of the pagan Irish to the true 'light' of Christianity. He criticised in particular the belief in the divinity of the sun, claiming that 'its brilliance will not endure', and that those who worship it will be punished; and insisted instead on the worship of Christ, 'the true sun who will never perish, nor will anyone who does His will'. It is interesting to note that both Muirchú and Tíreachán tell a story of a fire-ordeal by which the saint showed the superior power of Christianity over that of a pagan druid. According to the story, a servant of Patrick emerged unscathed from the ordeal, being untouched by the fires of paganism, whereas his opponent was totally consumed by the fire of the Christian faith.
In the Confessio, Patrick repeatedly refers to the great 'gift' he has received - meaning the conversion of the Irish people - and remarks that 'whether I receive good or ill, I return thanks equally to God'. Curiously, Muirchú relates a story of how a powerful pagan called Dáire sent a cauldron to Patrick as a gift, but the saint uttered no more than a single word of thanks. The pagan was incensed at this, and had the cauldron taken back, but Patrick expressed the same word of gratitude again. This caused the pagan to reconsider his position, and he gave the cauldron to Patrick to keep, as well as a site on which to build a church at Armagh. It is interesting to note that Dáire was an alternate name for the Celtic father-deity who was more usually referred to as the 'Daghdha', the bountiful god who gave to all from his great cauldron. Since Patrick preached that the Christian God was the true giver of good fortune, it may well be that this story sprang from a confused memory of such teaching.
The most striking story from these early biographies describes Patrick as lighting the first Paschal fire in Ireland. As an account, it is full of high drama. We are told that the High-King Laoghaire had the custom of lighting a fire at the royal centre of Tara on a certain night and that nobody else should kindle theirs before he did so. Patrick had come to the hill of Slane nearby, however, and when Laoghaire saw a fire lighting there he was outraged and ordered that the transgressor appear before him. Then Patrick came to Tara as a great Christian hero, and the High-King and all the royal forces were confounded by his miraculous power.
Several great contests between Patrick and the pagan druids are described, contests in which dramatic changes of climate and environment are brought about by magic and miracles. The saint, of course, triumphs in all of these tussles, which occur in the presence of the High-King at Tara and of all the royal court. The substance of these narratives was borrowed from passages in Christian literature, and it is clear that Patrick was being portrayed as a kind of new Moses triumphing over the Irish potentates, who have all the marks of the Pharaoh and other Biblical tyrants. Indeed, just as Moses caused water to spring from rock at a stroke of his staff, so Patrick is said to have caused holy wells to spring up at different places so as to facilitate the baptism of his converts.
The earliest biographies described the mission of Patrick as taking place in the northern half of the country, but around the 9th century a third account of him was written which extended his mission to the south. As well as the bishopric at Armagh, it was further claimed that he founded the bishopric at Cashel, which rivalled the former in prestige. There is little doubt but that all such accounts of his activities were closely connected with the claims and counter-claims of the two leading power-groups of the period, the Uí Néill dynasty in the north and the Eoghanacht dynasty in the south.
In the 9th century literature we also find the beginning of a celebrated tradition concerning St Patrick. This claims that he spent forty days and nights fasting on top of the mountain of Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, and that God became worried lest he might die and thereby leave his mission unaccomplished. The Supreme Being therefore asked him to abandon his fast, but Patrick would only do so on three conditions - that the Irish people would not live permanently under oppression, that the country would be submerged seven years before the end of the world and so be spared the final devastation, and that Patrick himself would be allowed to judge all the Irish people on the Last Day. This tradition, which has Patrick as the special champion of the Irish, persisted down through the centuries and gave consolation to the people in times of misery and distress.
The best-known of all traditions concerning the saint seems not to have originated until the 11th century, when it first appears in biographies of him. This is the belief that he banished the snakes from Ireland. The indications are that this idea was suggested by the many accounts of how the saint banished the 'demons of paganism', and that it was borrowed specifically from a similar motif in the biography of St Honoratus, founder of the island-monastery of Lérins in France where Patrick is said to have studied. The fact that there were no snakes in Ireland was well known from antiquity, and indeed was referred to by the Graeco- Roman writer Solinus two hundred years before Patrick was born.
Later still is the association of the shamrock with him. It was customary in Ireland to use the shamrock as an aperitif, and the placing of some sprigs of it in a toast was no doubt the origin of 'drowning the shamrock on the feast day' of the saint. The actual wearing of the shamrock as a badge on St Patrick's Day is hardly more than a few centuries old, but old enough for some creative mind to notice that its trefoil stem offered a neat parallel to the Christian mystery of the Trinity. Thus we are told that Patrick, being exasperated in his efforts to impress this doctrine on his Irish audience, stooped down and picked up the shamrock, explaining that just as three leaves can spring from one stem so also there are three persons in one God.
The Irish people, however, have not confined their fascination with St Patrick to environmental and theological legends. Down through the centuries they have invented many other stories of a curious and sometimes humorous nature. He is said, for instance, to have met survivors of the epical heroes of old Irish tradition, the Fianna, and to have obtained baptism posthumously for their fellows. It is also claimed that he blessed and cursed various parts of the country, depending on the preferences of the storytellers, and that he ordered that tavern-keepers should always give extra value for money on the day of his feast!
So Patrick, the slave-boy forcibly brought here from abroad, has become to many generations of Irish people the epitome of all that they considered best in their culture - a courageous and protective figure, proficient in miracles, scrupulous in teaching, but full of human kindness and with his own puckish sense of humour.
St Patrick's Day has always had a special meaning for the Irish. The national holiday, which falls on March 17, is an occasion of great celebration not only for the native Irish themselves but also for many- thousands of people of Irish background throughout the world. While the principal parade in Ireland is in Dublin, many cities and towns throughout the country hold parades. Parades and marching band competitions have become the order of the day, and participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Britain and Continental Europe, to join in the festivities. Word of the fun has spread to such an extent that nowadays the period of celebration has increased to a week.
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