The Surprising Saint Patrick: Baylor Expert Reveals Facts, Fallacies on Patron Saint of Ireland
WACO, Texas (March 13, 2023) – Saint Patrick (A.D. 385-461) is probably one of the Catholic Church’s best-known saints, at least in countries influenced by Irish emigration. He is even more popular due to a rise in Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations and revelry. But, despite his popularity, how much do most people truly know about Saint Patrick?
“Stories about Saint Patrick’s labors in Ireland abound, although it is not always easy to separate fact from fiction,” Foley said. “As a general rule, the more popular a legend is about Saint Patrick, the more it is untrue.”
- Patrick wasn’t Irish. He was born in either Scotland or northern England and described himself as a Roman and a Briton.
- Patrick was not his real name. When the Pope authorized Patrick to evangelize Ireland, he prophetically named him Patricius or “father of citizens.” It is not known what his exact name was before then.
- He was abducted by Irish pirates and sold into slavery at the age of 16. Patrick spent six years in slavery, probably near the modern village of Killala in the northwest. During that time, Patrick grew in his love of God. He prayed day and night as he tended his master’s flocks, and his hardships did him no harm, for as he later realized, “the Spirit was burning hot” within him.
- Patrick deeply missed his home and family in Britain, and he wrote about how much he would have loved to visit his saintly friends in Gaul but felt obligated to remain in Ireland and do the Lord’s work.
- Patrick did not teach the Irish about the Trinity by using a shamrock (if he had, he would have been guilty of the heresy of modalism, Foley said). The earliest mention of the legend comes from English botanists in 1571. The shamrock is not a botanically recognized species: the word seamróg (shamrock) is Gaelic for young clover.
- Patrick baptized thousands of Irish and lived to see some of Ireland’s future leaders become monks and nuns instead.
- Patrick did not drive the snakes out of Ireland since there were no snakes on the island to drive out. The last Ice Age kept the sensitive, cold-blooded reptiles from most parts of Europe, and when the earth began to warm up, they took advantage of ice bridges to reach places such as England. However, there was no ice bridge between Britain and Ireland, so the snakes could not settle in the Emerald Isle. Ireland thus joined the ranks of Iceland, Greenland, New Zealand and Antarctica in being perpetually snake-free.
- Patrick has some unexpected patronages. He is recognizably a patron saint of Ireland and a patron of migrants because of his association with the Irish. Patrick is a patron saint of engineers because he oversaw the construction of churches and, it is said, taught the Irish to build arches of lime mortar instead of dry masonry. He also is the patron saint of Nigeria. In 1961, one year after Nigeria wrested its independence from Great Britain, the bishops of Nigeria (most if not all of them Irish) made Patrick the patron of the new nation.
- It is customary to wear green clothes or a shamrock on Saint Patrick’s Day; naysayers are pinched for refusing to play along. This practice began as an American novelty in the early 1700s.
- The universal Church has celebrated March 17 as Saint Patrick’s feast day since the early 1600s. Festivities vary in different parts of the world. The feast has been mixed with Irish patriotism from an early age in the United States. Boston’s Irish Charitable Society sponsored the first organized celebration in 1737, and New York City began Saint Patrick’s Day parades in 1762.
- By contrast, Saint Patrick’s Day is a holy day of obligation in Ireland. There were no parades for the feast until the early 1900s, and all pubs were closed until recently. It is only within the past three decades that Saint Patrick’s Day has become as significant an affair in Ireland as it has been in the Irish diaspora for centuries.
- Today, Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival. Unexpected places include Russia, Malta, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia—and outer space. In 2011, green-clad astronauts aboard the International Space Station observed the occasion by playing the flute and tin whistle as they hovered midair.
It is believed Saint Patrick founded his main church in Armagh, which became the head church in Ireland. He also is credited with founding churches and monasteries throughout the island.
“The legends about Saint Patrick and the current observances surrounding his feast day are often in tension with or are an outright contradiction of the holiness of the Saint,” said Foley. “But what we know about Patrick is enough to strengthen our resolve” in his accomplishments.
Numerous miracles are attributed to him, including restoring sight to the blind and raising nine people from the dead. Patrick died on March 17, 461, in what is now known as Downpatrick, a town in County Down, Northern Ireland. His remains are preserved in Down Cathedral.
“Saint Patrick almost single-handedly converted an entire people to Christianity. Those people became a seedbed of saints, scholars and missionaries,” Foley said. “It is not just Ireland but the world that owes a debt of gratitude to the surprising and homesick British ex-slave who heard the voice of the Irish across the sea and answered it.”
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