On March 17th, people everywhere become Irish for a day as they celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. But many people don’t know much about the real St. Patrick. If you ask the average person who St. Patrick was, you will likely be told that he was an Irish man who chased the snakes out of Ireland and became a saint. Neither of these “facts” are true, but the real Patrick had a more interesting life than his myths suggest.
The most famous of Irish saints, and the patron saint of Ireland, was not even Irish. He was born in Roman Britain, which would not have included Ireland, but would have been in what is now England. His father was from an important Roman family, and his mother was related to St. Martin of Tours, who was born in what is now Hungary.
Patrick never even saw Ireland until he was kidnapped at age 16 by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. His master was Druid priest, and Patrick was put to work tending sheep.
Though his family was Christian, Patrick had never been interested in religion. He first became religious during his captivity, which he saw as a test of his faith, and he decided to convert the Irish to Christianity after a series of visions told him to do so.
Patrick had to escape his enslavement to achieve his goals. To do so, he managed to convince a group of sailors to let him sail away with them. High drama ensued, as the crew had to abandon their boat on the coast of France after three days. Patrick wandered over 200 miles in seven weeks, and eventually found some of his family.
After becoming free, he set about his goal of converting the Irish. He achieved success because he did not require the Irish to abandon all of their pagan rituals. He even let them continue to believe in their original gods, but he told the Irish these gods were actually demons. He also invented the Celtic cross, which combined Irish sun-worship with the Christian cross symbol.
As for the famous snake story, there is no way that it could have happened. Ireland is one of several countries that has never had snakes. This is due to Ireland’s long separation, first by glaciers and then the sea, from mainland Europe. Scholars believe that the snake story may be purely allegorical. Snakes are symbols of evil to Christians and have been linked to pagan practices. The eradication of snakes from Ireland may be a metaphor for the eradication of paganism.
Though we can’t thank Patrick for ridding a country of snakes, we can, in a roundabout way, thank him for giving rise to a lot of fantastic parades and parties all over the world every March. If you enjoy these festivities, raise a glass of your green beer to the Roman Britain slave who brought a new religion to Ireland.