Patrick of Ireland

   Considering the fact that St. Patrick's Day is the largest Celtic celebration around the world, there are several myths and misconceptions about Patrick, and much that is not generally known about him.

Patrick's Birth and Enslavement

   Patrick was not Irish. He was a British Celt, born probably in the area of Dumbarton, Scotland, first enslaved and taken to Ireland as a teen, later returning as a missionary to Ireland. His given name was either Maewyn or Succat, (Celtic for 'clever in war'). It is believed that Pope Celestine renamed him Patricius after his consecration as a bishop. This evolved into the name Padraig or Patrick that we know him by today.
   It is believed that he was born in the year 387; to Calphurnius and Conchessa, in the vicus of Bannavem Taburniae. As Patrick in his writing does not tell us where this is, it is generally assumed to be in the Strathclyde area. His father was a man of position and the son of a priest. His mother, Conchessa, was a near relative of the great patron of Gaul, St. Martin of Tours.
   In his sixteenth year, Patrick was carried off into captivity by Irish marauders and was sold as a slave to Milchu (or Miliue), a Druid or chieftain in Dalriada, a territory of the present county of Antrim in Ireland. It was at this time that the famous Irish King Niall of the Nine Hostages was raiding with his Scotti and Pictish allies into Britain and France.
   Here he remained for six years, tending sheep in the valley of the Braid and on the slopes of Slemish, near the modern town of Ballymena. During his captivity, Patrick learned the language and customs of the land. These he added to the Latin that he learned in his youth.
   Six years after his capture, he had a dream in which an angel admonished him to flee from his master. He relates in his "Confessio" that he had to travel about 200 miles; and his journey was probably towards Killala Bay and Westport. He found a ship ready to set sail and after some rebuffs was allowed on board. In a few days, he was among his friends and family once more in Britain.

Early Priesthood

   Entreated by his family to remain with them, Patrick felt the calling of the priesthood and traveled to St. Martin's monastery at Tours, and also to the island sanctuary of Lérins which was acquiring widespread renown.  Patrick put himself under the guidance of Germanus, bishop of Auxerre. Tradition states that Patrick was engaged in missionary work in the territory of the Morini for several years while under St. Germanus' guidance.
   When Germanus was commissioned by the pope to battle the erroneous teachings of Pelagius in Britain, he chose Patrick to be one of his companions.

Mission to Ireland

   Patrick was not necessarily the first missionary to Ireland. His main ambition was to become Ireland's first Bishop, but his monastic superiors did not believe he was adequately qualified for the position and passed him over in favor of Palladius. Palladius' mission lasted only a short time due to the fierce opposition of a Wicklow chieftain and abandoned the sacred enterprise after about a year.
   It was Germanus who commended Patrick to Pope Celestine. It was only shortly before his death that Celestine gave this mission to Patrick and on that occasion bestowed on him many relics and other spiritual gifts, and gave him the name "Patercius" or "Patricius". Patrick, returning from Rome, received the tidings of the death of Palladius, and traveled to the nearby city of Turin where he received episcopal consecration at the hands of its great bishop, St. Maximus. He quickly hastened to Auxerre to make preparations for the Irish mission.
   It was probably in the spring of the year 433, that Patrick and his companions landed at the mouth of the Vantry River close by Wicklow Head. As before with Palladius, the mission was threatened. Patrick resolved to search out a more friendly territory in which to begin his mission, first proceeding towards Dalriada to pay the price of ransom to his former master. Briefly, he halted at the mouth of the River Boyne where he preached to the locals and performed his first miracle on Irish soil to honor the Blessed Virgin. Leaving one of his companions to continue the work of instruction, he continued on to Strangford Loughand and then over land towards Slemish.
   He had not proceeded far when a chieftain, named Dichu, blocked his further advance. When he drew his sword to strike Patrick, his arm became rigid as a statue and useless until he declared himself obedient to Patrick's will. Dichu gave Patrick a gift of a large sabhall (barn), which became the first sanctuary dedicated by Patrick in Ireland. A monastary and church were erected there, and the site retains the name Sabhall (pronounced Saul) to the present day.
   When Patrick neared Slemish, he was struck with horror to find the fort of his old master Milchu enveloped in flames. The fame of his power of miracles preceeded him. Milchu had  gathered his treasures into his mansion and setting it on fire, cast himself into the flames. The ancient records read: "His pride could not endure the thought of being vanquished by his former slave".
   Returning to Sabhall, St. Patrick learned that the chieftains of Ireland had been summoned to celebrate a special feast at Tara by Leoghaire, who was the Ard-Righ. During the journey, while staying at the stronghold of a chieftain named Secsnen, Benignus (Benen), son of the chief, was baptised and became the inseparable companion of the saint, and Patrick's prophecy concerning him was fulfilled, for Benen is named among the "comhards" or successors of St. Patrick in Armagh. 
   On Easter Sunday, in 433, the feast was to begin, and a decree went forth that from the preceeding day the fires throughout the kingdom should be extinguished until the signal blaze was kindled at Tara. Patrick arrived at the hill of Slane, at the opposite end of the valley on Easter Eve. In defiance and preparation for the feast of the Annunciation, Patrick kindled the Paschal fire on the summit. The druids at once raised their voice. "O King", live for ever; this fire, which has been lighted in defiance of the royal edict, will blaze for ever in this land unless it be this very night extinguished." By order of the king, the druids made  repeated attempts to extinguish the fire and to kill those that had disobeyed the royal command. But the fire was not extinguished and Patrick came away unharmed. Easter morning, Patrick's group led by Benignus holding aloft a copy of the Gospels, and followed by Patrick in full episcopal attire, proceeded to Tara. The druids tried to bar his way with darkness and magic. The Archdruid Lochru was lifted up high in the air by his magic, but when Patrick knelt in prayer the druid was dashed to pieces upon a rock. Twice Patrick pleaded his case before Leoghaire. The king had given orders that no sign of respect was to be extended to the strangers, but at the first meeting Erc, a royal page, arose to show him reverence; and at the second, when all the chieftains were assembled, the chief-bard Dubhtach showed the same honor to him. It was on this second occasion that Patrick is said to have plucked a shamrock, to explain by its triple leaf and single stem, the church doctrine of the Trinity. Leoghaire granted permission to Patrick to preach the Faith throughout the length and breadth of the land.
   During the ensuing feast games, a few miles distant at Tailten (Telltown), Patrick baptised Conall, brother of the Ard-Righ, on Wednesday, 5 April. This was the first public baptism, recognized by royal edict, and hence in the ancient Irish Kalendars, the fifth of April is assigned "the beginning of the Baptism of Erin". A site for a church which to the present day retains the name of Donagh-Patrick was presented by Conall.
   Some of the chieftains who had come to Tara were from Focluth, in the neighborhood of Killala, in Connaught. As the vision that had summoned Patrick to return to Ireland was of the children of Focluth, he resolved to accompany those chieftains home. Even though Leoghaire had given Patrick full liberty to preach throughout Ireland, Patrick still had to procure a safe conduct through the intervening territories for the price of fifteen slaves. On the way, Patrick learned that at Magh-Slecht, a vast henge was used in offering worship to Crom-Cruach. It was a huge upright, covered with slabs of gold and silver, with a circle of twelve minor stones around it. Patrick smote the main stone with his crosier and it crumbled into dust and the others fell to the ground.
   In 440CE, Patrick began the work of the conversion of Ulster, for under the following year, the annals relate the spread of the Faith throughout the province. In 444, a site for a church was granted at Armagh by Daire, the chieftain of the district.  From Ulster, Patrick probably proceeded to Meath, and thence on into Leinster. Patrick's primary function was to gather the ruling chieftains into the fold. Once accomplished, members of his mission and converted nobility were installed to continue the mission. At Naas in Leinster, Patrick baptised two sons of the King of Leinster. At Sletty near Carlow, St. Fiacc, son of the chief Bard Dubhtach, was installed as bishop, and his see became the chief centre of religion for all Leinster. In Ossory, Patrick erected a church under the invocation of St. Martin, near the present city of Kilkenny.
   It was in Leinster, on the borders of the present counties of Kildare and Queen's, that Odhran, Patrick's charioteer, was martyred. The chieftain of that district worshiped Crom Cruach and vowed to avenge the insult done to the Magh-Slecht site by killing Patrick. Odhran overheard the plot, and as they were setting out in the chariot to continue their journey, requested that he be allowed to hold the place of honour and rest. Patrick granted his wish, and scarcely had they set out when a lance pierced the heart of the devoted follower, who by changing places thus saved Patrick's life.
   Patrick next proceeded to Munster. At Cashel, he baptised Aengus, son of the King of Munster. During the ceremony, Patrick accidentally pierced the prince's foot with the sharp point of his crozier. Aengus bore the pain unmoved. When Patrick, at the close of the ceremony, asked him why he had been silent, he replied, that he thought it might be part of the ceremony. The saint admired his heroism, and taking the chieftain's shield, inscribed on it a cross with the same point of the crozier, and promised that that shield would be the signal of countless spiritual and temporal triumphs.
    Patrick tells us in his "Confessio" that no fewer than twelve times he and his companions were seized and carried off as captives, and on one occasion in particular he was chained and his death was decreed. But Patrick continued until his death to visit and watch over the churches which he had founded in all the provinces in Ireland. It is recorded in his Life that he consecrated no fewer than 350 bishops. From time to time, he withdrew from the spiritual duties to devote himself wholly to prayer and penance. One of his chosen places of solitude and retreat was the island of Lough Derg, now known as St. Patrick's Purgatory. In the far west of Connaught there is a range of tall mountains. At the head of this range stands Croagh Patrick, i.e. St. Patrick's mountain, which is honoured as the Holy Hill, the Mount Sinai, of Ireland. Patrick, in obedience to his guardian angel, made this mountain one of his places of retreat and some of the stories state that this is also where his ministry to Ireland began.


   Tradition fondly points out the impression of St. Patrick's foot upon the hard rock — off the main shore, at the entrance to Skerries harbour, which in olden times was known as Holm Patrick.
   Croagh Patrick is situated five miles from Westport and the mountain provides a beautiful backdrop to the surrounding countryside. The mountain has been considered a sacred mountain by the Irish people for over five thousand years. In 441 CE, it is said that St. Patrick spent 40 days and 40 nights praying and fasting on the mountain top. It is also said that this is the mountain from which St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland. Every year on the last Sunday of July over 60,000 people make the ascent up the mountain, many of them barefoot, to fast and pray. Near the base of the mountain is Tobair Padraig, or Patrick's Well, named for the natural spring nearby where Patrick baptized his first Irish converts. A white stone statue of St. Patrick holding a green clover up to the heavens stands at the beginning of the trail up to the mountain.

Driving out the Snakes

   There were never snakes---or other reptiles---in Ireland for Patrick to chase out.

The Last Snake in Ireland: A Story About St. Patrick, Sheila MacGill-Callahan, Will Hillenbrand (Illustrator) Reading level: Ages 4-8 Holiday House; March 1999

The traditional drink of whiskey known as "Pota Phadraig"

   According to the legend, Patrick was shortchanged on a shot of whiskey and told the landlord that the devil was in his cellar gorging himself on the landlord's dishonesty. Terrified by this prospect, the landlord vowed to change his ways and when Patrick returned to the tavern some time later, he found that the landlord now filled everyone's glass to overflowing! Patrick then announced that the landlord's newfound generosity was "starving the devil in his cellar," and proclaimed that thereafter everyone should have a drop of the 'hard stuff' on his feast day: Patrick's Pot. The tradition is also known as "drowning the Shamrock" because of the custom of floating a shamrock in the whiskey before swallowing it.


   After over 30 years of missionary work, Patrick retired to Sabhall in County Down. Toward the end, legend states that St. Brigid came to him with her chosen virgins, bringing the shroud in which he would be enshrined. It is recorded that when Patrick and Brigid were united in their last prayer, a special vision was shown to him. He saw the whole of Ireland lit up with the brightest rays of Divine Faith. This continued for centuries, and then clouds gathered around the devoted island, and, little by little, the religious glory faded away, until, in the course of centuries, it was only in the remotest valleys that some glimmer of its light remained. Patrick prayed that the light would never be extinguished, and, as he prayed, the angel came to him and said: "Fear not: your apostolate shall never cease." As he thus prayed, the glimmering light grew in brightness, and ceased not until once more all the hills and valleys of Ireland were lit up, and then the angel announced to St. Patrick: "Such shall be the abiding splendour of Divine truth in Ireland."  He died around 461CE, purportedly on March 17. St. Tassach administered the last sacraments to him. His remains were wrapped in the shroud woven by St. Brigid's own hands. The bishops and clergy and faithful people from all parts crowded around his remains to pay due honor. Some of the ancient Lives record that for several days the light of heaven shone around his bier. His remains were interred at the chieftan's Dun two miles from Sabhall, where in after times arose the cathedral of Down. This anniversary is now celebrated annually by many, through parades and various other activities.


   The only existing genuine documents we have from Patrick are his Confession and a letter he wrote to Coroticus, "Epistola ad Coroticum". The beautiful prayer, known as "Faeth Fiada",  The Shield of St Patrick, or the "Lorica of St. Patrick" (St. Patrick's Breast-Plate), first published by Petrie in his "History of Tara", is generally accepted as genuine.
   The 34 canons of a synod held before the year 460 by Patrick, Auxilius, and Isserninus, though rejected by some, is also considered as having some validity. Another series of 31 ecclesiastical canons entitled "Synodus secunda Patritii", though unquestionably of Irish origin and dating before the close of the seventh century, is generally considered to be of a later date than St. Patrick. Two tracts, "De abusionibus saeculi", and "De Tribus habitaculis", were composed b Patrick in Irish and translated into Latin at a later period. Passages from them are assigned to Patrick in the "Collectio Hibernensis Canonum", which is of unquestionable authority and dates from the year 700 (Wasserschleben, 2nd ed., 1885). The "Dicta Sancti Patritii", or brief sayings of the saint, preserved in the "Book of Armagh", are accurately edited by Fr. Hogan, S.J., in "Documenta de S. Patritio" (Brussels, 1884). The old Irish text of "The Rule of Patrick" has been edited by O'Keeffe, and a translation by Archbishop Healy in the appendix to his Life of St. Patrick (Dublin, 1905). It is a tract of venerable antiquity, and embodies the teaching of the saint. Information in this paragraph and some of the information in the paraphrased life above is from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Let Me Die in Ireland, the True Story of Patrick, David W. Bercot, Scroll Pub Co; January 6, 1999, Paperback - 192 pages
The Life of St. Patrick and His Place in History [UNABRIDGED], John B. Bury, Dover Pubns; Paperback
And God Blessed the Irish: The Story of Patrick, Chris Driscoll Reading level: Ages 9-12, Ambassador Books Inc; October 1997, Hardcover