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St. Patrick: Bringing Christianity to Ireland

St. Patrick's day celebrates Ireland – but how did it begin?

By:  |  March 17, 2024  |    885 Words
ireland snake

(Photo by Paul Faith – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

The most famous legend of St. Patrick says that he banished all the snakes from Ireland. According to the story, serpents attacked Patrick while he was fasting at the top of a hill, so he chased them all into the sea. It’s said this is why Ireland today has no snakes. Is the legend true? Scientists say that due to Ireland’s climate, there never were any snakes in the country – but the myth lives on, and so does St. Patrick’s Day.

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Postcard depicting St. Patrick and symbols of Ireland (Getty Images)

St. Patrick is the main patron saint of Ireland, and every year on March 17, people around the world celebrate him and his country. So, who was St. Patrick, and why did he make such a big impact?

St. Patrick Wasn’t Irish — and Wasn’t a Saint

St. Patrick was born in Britain, which did not include Ireland, in around 390 A.D. The British Isles were occupied by the Romans, and it is uncertain whether St. Patrick was part of the Roman aristocracy or of Celtic descent. There are only two documents in known existence with his signature, which he penned in Latin (the language of Rome), signing “Patricius” as his name. Some say his birth name was Maewyn Succat.

Irish raiders attacked his family’s estate when Patrick was only 16, taking him back to Ireland as a prisoner. He spent six years in captivity, where he worked as a shepherd and turned to religion, becoming a devout Christian. After a dream in which he said God spoke to him, Patrick escaped Ireland. He walked 200 miles from County Mayo – where it’s thought he was held – to the coast, where he managed to get passage back to Britain.

After Patrick was reunited with his family, another dream told him to return to the land of his imprisonment, but this time as a missionary. In his book Confessio, Patrick wrote that a man called Victoricus gave him a letter containing “the voice of the Irish people.” In the letter, Patrick writes, “They called out as it were with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.’”

County Mayo (Photo by RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)

He trained for 15 years, and after being ordained as a bishop he finally went back to Ireland. He worked in poverty and built churches around the country for 40 years. It’s thought that St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, takes place on the date of his death, around the year 461 A.D.

Some say Patrick brought Christianity to the Irish, but others say some Christians already existed on the island.

St. Patrick wasn’t the first bishop to try converting Ireland – that was a Roman named Palladius. Some say the stories of the two men were mixed into one myth.

Palladius’ Failed Mission

Palladius was from Gaul, an area in Western Europe including France and Germany. The region was conquered by Rome and later converted to Christianity under the Roman Empire.

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(Photo by ANDREW HOLBROOKE/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s thought Palladius came from a noble family and served as a deacon in the Church of Gaul. He traveled to Rome to study before Pope Celestine I made him a bishop and sent him to minister in Ireland. However, it didn’t go well. He was quickly banished by the King of Leinster. Muirchu, a monk from the area, wrote in the Book of Armagh 200 years later that, “God hindered him … and neither did those fierce and cruel men receive his doctrine readily, nor did he himself wish to spend time in a strange land, but returned to him who sent him.”

Palladius reportedly went to Scotland, where he set up a more successful missionary.

By contrast, St. Patrick was familiar with Ireland. He successfully gathered more Christians partly because he chose to use some of the country’s language and culture in his teaching, making people feel more at ease.

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(Getty Images)

Although known as St. Patrick, he was never canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint. At the time, there was no formal canonization process.

Other Legends of St Patrick

The shamrock (three-leaf clover) is a symbol of St. Patrick’s Day. It’s said he used the shamrock to explain the idea of the Christian holy trinity (the father, the son, and the holy spirit) by showing the three leaves on one stalk.

It’s said he raised 33 people from the dead.

According to legend, Patrick prayed for food for hungry sailors in the wilderness and a herd of pigs appeared.

It’s said Patrick carried an ash-wood walking staff. When he would stop to preach, he would stick it in the ground. When he arrived in a place in England now called Aspatria (ash of Patrick), it took so long to convert the locals that the wooden staff had sprouted into a real tree by the time he was ready to leave. Legend has it the staff belonged to Jesus Christ, who had given it to a hermit, telling him to pass it along to Patrick when they met.

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