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A quick exercise to get us started: What words and phrases come to mind when you think of Saint Patrick?
Pious? Holy? Snake-driver? Shamrock-wielder? Pagan-tamer? Wearer-of-the-green?
What about slave? Abolitionist? Lady-lover? Shape-shifter? Necromancer? Or even… murderer?
Given St. Patrick’s status as an exalted figure not only in Irish history, but also world history (see quotation from Irish poet, dramatist, and author Seumas MacManus below), it should come as no surprise that the facts and fictions concerning Patrick’s life and deeds have become jumbled.
“The coming of Patrick may be said to have had sublime effect not on Ireland alone, but upon the world. It was a world event… He was one of the greatest of Celts, became one of the greatest of Irishmen, and one of the very great among men.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
In the centuries since Patrick’s death in 460 CE (or thereabouts), overzealous biographers and hagiographers and yarn-spinners have blurred the lines so much between how Patrick—the historical, flesh-and-blood human—behaved in real life, and how Saint Patrick—the mythologized miracle-worker—behaved in our popular imaginations, it can be hard (and in some cases, impossible) to distinguish between the two. As writer and scholar Thomas Cahill notes, “Of the many legends surrounding Patrick, few can be authenticated.”
My goal with this article is to attempt to unjumble the unjumbleable, to authenticate the unauthenticateable—to separate the facts of St. Patrick’s life and deeds from the myths, legends, and folktales.
Separating Man From Myth: 20 Facts About St. Patrick
(Click below to jump to a specific section)
- Was St. Patrick a real person?
- Was St. Patrick Irish? English? Welch? Scottish? Italian? French?
- Did St. Patrick chase the snakes out of Ireland?
- Did St. Patrick use the shamrock to teach the Trinity?
- Did St. Patrick dress in green?
- Why did St. Patrick change his name?
- Where did St. Patrick get his staff?
- What was St. Patrick’s job?
- Was St. Patrick an engineer?
- Was St. Patrick really a saint?
- Did St. Patrick bring Christianity to Ireland?
- Did St. Patrick perform miracles?
- Did St. Patrick speak Irish?
- Did St. Patrick have siblings?
- Was St. Patrick married?
- Was St. Patrick gay?
- Was St. Patrick Catholic?
- Did St. Patrick commit genocide? Did he kill pagans? Did he battle druids?
- Was St. Patrick a murderer? Why did he write his Confession?
- Was St. Patrick a martyr?
1. Was St. Patrick a real person?
History confirms that Patrick, born Maewyn Succat, was a real person who lived most of his life in the fifth century CE.
Two primary sources—written by the man himself and meticulously preserved thereafter—confirm his existence. These are his Confession (Confessio), an autobiography of sorts he wrote to dispel rumors being spread about him (more on those later), and his Letter to Coroticus (Epistola), in which he scathingly rebukes the actions of the British warlord Coroticus (later identified as Ceretic Guletic) and his soldiers who raided Ireland, killing and kidnapping Irish Christians.
Dublin-based historian and archaeologist Terry O’Hagan confirms Patrick’s historicity:
“Patrick is historical. He really existed. The writings he left behind are the earliest documents known to have been written in Ireland and provide us with our only historical evidence for the entire fifth century.”source: “Will the Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up” (JSTOR Daily)
However, and this is a big “however,” everything you probably know about St. Patrick is wrong (all of which will be addressed later in this post). So, an important clarification is in order: While St. Patrick was a real person, the green-clad, staff-bearing St. Patrick of our popular imaginations was not. To quote O’Hagan:
“He was, and is, a metaphorical, literary, and religious conceit. He was, and is, a product of ecclesiastical primacy, the poster boy for an early medieval monastic federation who used him to champion their claims of being Chief Executive Officers of an emerging corporation—the medieval Irish Church hierarchy. Practically everything that has come down to us concerning St. Patrick comes from the quills of people who were originally writing with such terms in mind almost two centuries after he lived. Traditional Irish ‘fake lore,’ not folklore. Thanks for visiting. Stop by the gift shop on the way out. Fifty percent off all Blarney Sweaters.”source: “Will the Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up” (JSTOR Daily)
2. Was St. Patrick Irish? English? Welch? Scottish? Italian? French?
Many theories abound as to where St. Patrick was born, yet there is little evidence available to us which would allow us to form a robust conclusion. What we do know for sure is that Patrick was not born in Ireland, as it is clear he was born in a Romanized settlement (and the Romans never made it to Ireland). Patrick himself referred to his birthplace as Bannavem Taburniae—but that only raises another question: Where was Bannavem Taburniae? As Seumas MacManus wrote:
“There is endless dispute as to where exactly was the birthplace of Patrick, which, in his Confession he appears to tell us was in ‘Bannaven of Taberniae.’ Many authorities hold that it was near Dumbarton, in the most Northern Roman province of Celtic Britain. Others hold it was in the Celtic province of Brittany in France. In his Confession are pieces of internal evidence that sustain either theory.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
MacManus, for his part, argued for a Continental origin (Brittany), noting that Patrick’s maternal uncle was St. Martin of Tours, a former Roman soldier. Patrick’s birth name, Succat, signifies “clever in war,” which was perhaps a nod to Uncle Martin.
However, the Patrick-Martin familial connection is not universally agreed upon by historians. And most believe that the Celtic Britannia from which Patrick hailed was not Brittany, but the island of Britain. To quote professor and folklorist Juilene Osborne-McKnight:
“St. Patrick is Romano/Welsh/Briton. He tells us that his grandfather’s home was at Bannavem Taburniae. No such place is referenced in any historical documents that we can find, but scholars guess that it had to be either the seacoast of Wales or of southwest Scotland. Why? Because that is where Patrick was captured as a slave.”source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans
The idea that Patrick might somehow be Italian likely stems from the fact that he grew up in a Romanized area. What’s more, Patrick’s father, Calporn, was a decurio—a local magistrate, akin to an alderman. But here it is important to recognize that working for the Roman Empire is not the same thing as being from Rome. Like many in the area at the time, Patrick was likely descended from Celts (and assuming the Welsh origin, Brythonic Celts) who had Roman culture thrust upon them after the Roman invasion of Britain (circa 43 – 87 CE).
But even though Patrick wasn’t born in Ireland, does that mean he wasn’t Irish? After all, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland at age sixteen, lived there for six years, and then, after his miraculous escape (and subsequent religious training), returned to spend the majority of his life there. I mean, if you asked the guy, “Are you Irish?”, what do you think he’d say? We don’t have to wonder. He told us:
“Patrick, operating at the margins of European geography and of human consciousness, has traveled even further from his birthright than we might expect. He is no longer British or Roman, at all. When he cries out in his pain, ‘Is it a shameful thing… that we have been born in Ireland?’ we know that he has left the old civilization behind forever and has identified himself completely with the Irish.”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
Other writers and historians echo this sentiment, including McKnight (“…one has the feeling that by the end of his life, Patrick has become ‘more Irish than the Irish,’”) and MacManus (“…the Irish land which he had entered as a foreigner, he now left as an Irishman.”)
3. Did St. Patrick chase the snakes out of Ireland?
No, he didn’t. Phew, that was an easy one. Moving on. Next question…
OK, fine, let’s examine this one a bit more closely, shall we? In a literal sense, there is no way Patrick could have driven any snakes out of Ireland because there were no snakes there to begin with. To quote Nigel Monaghan, head of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin:
“At no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in Ireland. [There was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish.”source: “Did St. Patrick Really Drive Snakes Out of Ireland?” (National Geographic)
The credit for the Emerald Isle’s lack of serpents should not be given to Patrick, standing on a mountaintop (Croagh Patrick), waving his magical staff (more on that later), uttering some variation of “I banish thee, all venomous and viperous things” —although that is an entertaining story. Instead, the credit must go to the last Ice Age, which made conditions too frigid to support cold-blooded critters such as snakes. And while ten thousand years ago, the glaciers receded and land bridges connected Ireland to Britain, and Britain to mainland Europe, allowing the likes of bears, boars, and lynxes to enter Ireland, snakes were evidently not able to slither swiftly enough to make it across in time.
Yet the myth lives on. And perhaps what is even more impressive is that the myth was able to propagate in the first place—at a time when people already knew that there had never been any snakes in Ireland. To quote Seumas MacManus:
“Some centuries before, Solinus, the Roman writer, recorded that there were no snakes in Ireland—which belies the honoured tradition. The tradition, however, persists, and will always persist in popular belief.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
Of course, by focusing exclusively on the literal interpretation of Patrick’s snake-driving, we may be missing out on some important symbolism. There is, in fact, a long tradition of snake-charming among Christian saints, which includes Saint Hilary, St. Adalbert, and St. Columba. In this tradition, of which Patrick is a part, getting rid of or taming snakes is clearly a euphemism for dispelling evil—a perceived evil, anyway—by spreading Christianity.
In Ireland, where druids were the supreme religious leaders of the land at the time of Patrick’s arrival, the snake-driving possibly had even more symbolic significance. To quote Catholic priest and writer Dwight Longenecker:
“The pagan druids featured serpents in their worship and were tattooed with serpents. Furthermore, the serpent, in many pagan nature religions, is the symbol of the ‘earth powers’. To put it bluntly, Patrick was an effective exorcist. He drove out the pagan religions and with it drove out the Great Serpent Satan.”source: “The Snakes of St. Patrick” (Patheos)
4. Did St. Patrick use the shamrock to teach the Trinity?
If you’re unfamiliar with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, buckle up, because it certainly requires a bit of mental gymnastics to understand. The gist is that the Christian God exists as three coequal entities: the Father (the Big Guy, the Man Upstairs), the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit (the Holy Ghost, the means by which God communicates with and influences people). It’s a tad confusing, of course, when you consider that one of Ten Commandments—typically the one at the top of the list, in fact—asserts the following: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”
But if the Lord is God, and Jesus is also God, and the Holy Spirit is God, too… I mean, it seems like there are two too many Gods. In their efforts to spread Christianity, missionaries—including Patrick—needed a way to explain away this apparent contradiction.
If only there were a common object, a plant, let’s say, that sprung up everywhere across the landscape, a plant that consisted of three essential parts that formed a whole, single entity. It would be the perfect tool for a proselytizer such as a Patrick to use to teach pagans about the Trinity. And the shamrock (seamróg in Irish)—or more accurately, the yellow suckling clover (Trifolium dubium), which is the plant the Republic of Ireland officially acknowledges as the shamrock, since, botanically speaking, shamrocks don’t exist—fits that mold perfectly.
There’s only one issue with this seemingly reasonable idea: The pagans of pre-Christian Ireland didn’t need to look at a three-leafed plant to understand the concept of a tripartite God—they had plenty of tripartite gods, or “triple deities”, in their own religion. Most notably, these included Danu (or Dana), mother goddess of the Tuath Dé Danann; Brigid (or Brigit), who consisted of three sisters, Brigid the goddess of healing, Brigid the goddess of smiths, and Brigid the goddess of fertility and poetry; and the Mórrígan (or Morrígu), the goddess, of war, death, and slaughter, who consisted of the three sisters Macha, Badb, and Nemain.
What’s more, the shamrock does not appear in any of the old stories concerning Patrick. The connection first emerged in 1684, when an English visitor to Ireland observed the following:
“The 17th day of March yeerly is St Patricks, an immoveable feast, when ye Irish of all stations and [conditions] [wear] crosses in their hatts, some of pins, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitiously wear shamroges, 3 leav’d grass, which they likewise eat (they say) to cause a sweet breath.”source: Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (Google Books)
Based on all of the above, can we conclusively say that St. Patrick never picked up a clover and used it in his teachings? Of course not. To quote Thomas Cahill, “There is no way of knowing whether he used the shamrock to explain the Trinity.“
5. Did St. Patrick dress in green?
It’s the color most closely associated with his adoptive country as well as his eponymous holiday, but did St. Patrick actually wear green?
While modern images of Patrick almost always show him in a flowing emerald robe or cassock, the very first image of him we have on record (see above), which dates back to the thirteenth century, shows him cloaked in blue as he meets with a High King of Ireland at Tara. The color blue was so closely associated with Patrick, in fact, that he even had his own shade of blue. In 1783, when George III created a new order of chivalry for Ireland (then under British rule), the order’s official color was a variant of sky blue called St. Patrick’s Blue.
Patrick’s strong association with blue makes more sense when you consider that blue had—up until recently—been the color most closely associated with Ireland. As Irish journalist Gavan Reilly explains:
“Ireland’s history with the colour blue is largely related to its colonial history, but there are older associations too – Flaitheas Éireann, the embodiment of Irish sovereignty in mythological times (a sort of Irish answer to Uncle Sam or Jack Bull), wore blue. The crest for the older Kingdom of Meath, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, showed the image of a ruler sitting on a green throne with a blue background.”source: “So you know Ireland’s national colour might not be green, right?” (TheJournal.ie)
Later, when Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland in 1541, and a coat of arms was created for the kingdom, the imagery chosen was that of a golden harp on a blue background, marking the first formal use of blue to represent Ireland.
It’s unclear how, exactly, green came to replace blue as the dominant color of both Irish identity and St. Patrick’s identity, but it’s possible that Ireland’s verdant landscape—and perhaps even the legend of St. Patrick preaching with the help of a particular green, three-leafed plant—contributed to the change. As Irish nationalism swelled in the nineteenth century, the adoption of green also helped Ireland distinguish itself from England, Scotland, Wales, all of which were represented primarily by blues and reds at the time.
But to return to our original question: Did St. Patrick actually wear green? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say. As is the case with Patrick’s shamrock-wielding, it’s certainly plausible, but there’s no historical evidence to back it up.
6. Why did St. Patrick change his name?
According to legend, the honorific name Patricius (the Latin form of Patrick) was bestowed upon Maewyn Succat during a visit to Rome. As the story goes, the man-who-would-become-Patrick was finishing up his religious training in Auxerre, France, under the tutelage of St. Germanus, when he received some good news: Palladius—the bishop originally dispatched to Ireland—was dead! There was a job opening, and Maewyn Succat, who had long sought to return to Ireland, intended to fill it. I’ll let Seumas MacManus pick up the story from there:
“When finally came the news of the failure and of the death of Palladius, Patrick journeyed to Rome, to Pope Celestine, carrying with him a letter from Germanus. Celestine now granted his request, and consecrated him Archbishop for the Irish mission. Also twenty priests and deacons were ordained, to be his companions in the undertaking… Celestine also conferred upon him his new name, Patricius—an ancient title of the highest honour among the Romans.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
There’s only one, teensy little problem with this account: It has no basis in history. For such an important event, one would think that someone at the time, perhaps even Patrick himself, would make a note of it. But he didn’t. To quote Terry O’Hagan:
“There is no mention of Rome. No mention of popes. No mention of papal sanction or authority.”source: “Will the Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up” (JSTOR Daily)
There is, however, an alternative account of how Patrick got his new name, one that seems much more plausible: He simply adopted the name when he became a priest. According to TIME, Patricius is derived from the Latin term for “Father Figure”—a fitting moniker for a priest who was keen on helping his wayward “children” of Ireland see the light.
7. Where did St. Patrick get his staff?
Now THIS is one hell of a story… err, sorry, poor choice of words. Know that pastoral staff or crosier (also spelled crozier) that St. Patrick is often depicted with? According to hagiographic literature—including the “Life of Patrick,” written at the end of the twelfth century—St. Patrick’s iconic staff, which he used to banish snakes and baptize Ireland, was none other than the Bachal Isu:
The Staff of Jesus.
But the story gets better, becausePatrick didn’t just happen to find Jesus’s staff in the back of a closet; he found it on an island in the care of some age-defying inhabitants. As Seumas MacManus tells it:
“Sailing to Rome, [Patrick] stopped at a house on an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, says the story, a new house of a young married couple, who had children and grandchildren, old and decrepit. The lanamain, the young couple, had been married in the time of Jesus, who passed that way immediately after they were married and received their hospitality—for which he blessed them and their house, and said that they and it should remain new and young till the Judgement Day. In their care He left His Staff, with the injunction that it should be kept for Patrick…”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
Here, we reach a fork in the story of how Patrick received Jesus’s staff. In one version of events, the eternally youthful man simply gives the staff to Patrick and passes on word from Jesus that Patrick is to “go and preach in the land of the Gael.”
In another version, Patrick refuses the staff, citing that he would only take it if “it were given him by Christ himself.” And that’s exactly what ends up happening. To quote American writer and abolitionist minister Moncure D. Conway:
“[Patrick] was then led into a mountain by his familiar angel, where Christ met him, gave him the staff, and ordered him to go to Ireland. This Patrick did, taking no counsel of any Roman Catholic flesh and blood. He was the divinely authorized British pope and…the earliest mention of him is under that title.”source: “The Saint Patrick Myth” from The North American Review, Oct., 1883, Vol. 137
This second ending has some very interesting implications, which we’ll revisit later in the post. But for now, let us ruminate on the fact that it’s unlikely Patrick ever traveled to Rome in the first place, which means neither version of his staff’s origin story—without even mentioning the supernatural elements—really holds water. And then, of course, there’s the fact that nowhere in the New Testament does it mention that Jesus ever actually owned a staff, which leads me to a new train of thought:
What if I started out by asking the wrong question? What if Patrick never actually had a staff?
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, there is no mention of bishops wielding staffs as symbols of their holy authority until the fourth Council of Toledo—that was in 633 CE, after Patrick’s time. So maybe the whole Patrick-holding-a-staff thing is an anachronism: Once shepherd’s staffs, or croziers, became important symbols in Christianity, artists made it a point to retroactively put one in the hands of St. Patrick, as well as in the hands of other saints (and Jesus).
But here’s where this story takes one final, serpentine (sorry, Patrick) twist. Because while the symbolism of the pastoral staff is obvious—it’s the tool of a shepherd, used to tend to one’s flock, its hooked end, or crook, used to reign in those wandering astray—Patrick wasn’t merely a metaphorical shepherd. He was an actual shepherd.
8. What was St. Patrick’s job?
In 403 CE, when Patrick was sixteen, he was kidnapped from his home in Britain, brought to Ireland, and enslaved by the king/chieftain Miliucc. For the next six years, Patrick herded sheep in the hills of Antrim, somewhere between Sliabh Mis (the Slieve Mish Mountains) and Lough Neagh, Ireland’s largest lake. As far as first “jobs” go, this was not a good one. As Thomas Cahill explains:
“The life of a shepherd-slave could not have been a happy one… The work of such shepherds was bitterly isolated, months at a time spent alone in the hills… We know that he did have two constant companions, hunger and nakedness, and that the gnawing in his belly and the chill on his exposed skin were his worst sufferings, acutely painful presences that could not be shaken off.”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
The fact that Patrick was able to survive this ordeal at all helps confirm that he was a well-nourished child with a privileged upbringing. From his own writings, we know that in his youth he paid little attention to religious matters, didn’t have a strong belief in God, and had little respect for the Church. But after facing real hardship, probably for the first time in his life, Patrick changed his tune. He turned into a prayer machine. To quote the man himself:
“Tending flocks was my daily work, and I would pray constantly during the daylight hours. The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more—and faith grew and the Spirt was roused, so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and after dark nearly as many again, even while I remained in the woods or on the mountain. I would wake and pray before daybreak—through snow, frost, rain—nor was there any sluggishness in me (such as I experience nowadays) because the Spirit within me was ardent.”source: The Confession of St. Patrick
Then, one night, a dreaming Patrick heard a mysterious voice, which told him that his ship was ready, and he was going home. The only problem: Miliucc’s land was nowhere near the coast. So Patrick began to walk, and walk, and walk, and some two hundred miles later, he reached an inlet—probably Wexford—and found his ship home.
Patrick’s next job, of course, is that of a Christian preacher. He trains to become a priest, and—after hearing more voices, these ones urging him to return to Ireland—he eventually goes back and spends the rest of his life there, much to the dismay of his family.
But here we’re faced with yet another discrepancy in the story of St. Patrick. Popularly, he was a bishop, sanctioned by Rome to go spread the good word in Ireland. But factually, it’s likely that Patrick went rogue—and his contemporaries probably thought he was a bit of a nutjob for wanting to return to Ireland. As Terry O’Hagan explains:
“Converting pagans outside the fringes of the Roman Empire was beyond the comprehension of most fifth-century Christians. This had been made clear to him when he was still a priest in Britain, at a time when he was being considered for the rank of bishop by his seniors. That process ended in formal rejection… Patrick nevertheless decided to follow what he considered to be divine inspiration—and he returned to Ireland anyway. He was not authorized to do so, and in actual fact, went against the express wishes of his family and ecclesiastical superiors, insinuating that he sold his personal inheritance in order to fund his initial efforts.”source: “Will the Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up” (JSTOR Daily)
So Patrick, rogue preacher, left his family once again—this time intentionally—and the rest is history. Well, history mixed with myth, legend, and folklore. One final aspect of St. Patrick’s résumé I’d like to touch upon, however—and one that definitely shows up in the historical record—is that of abolitionist.
No doubt spurred on by his own experiences as a slave, Patrick made it a point to speak out against the institution, castigating both the British—via his Letter to Coroticus—and his adopted people, the Irish, for its practice. The Irish were better listeners. As Cahill notes:
“Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased… However blind his British contemporaries may have been to it, the greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again till the seventeenth century.”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
9. Was St. Patrick an engineer?
Considering he is the patron saint of engineers, one might suspect that St. Patrick did a bit of engineering in his day. That is certainly what some College of Engineering students at the University of Missouri believed back in 1903, when they claimed to have “discovered” that Patrick was engineer. Although, according to the University of Missouri’s own archives, it seems more likely that these students were merely looking for an excuse to cut class on March 17th.
Still, stories abound that Patrick built some of Ireland’s first churches with his own hands, even using his famed pastoral staff as a measuring tool during their construction. To quote anthropologist Grigory Grigoryev (citing hagiographic literature from the ninth century):
“[T]he saint symbolically measures the site of the future monastery of Armagh… St. Patrick acts as a divine architect, employing his staff as a measuring rod.”source: Bachal Ísu: the Symbolism of St. Patrick’s Crosier in Early-Medieval Irish Hagiography (PDF)
A related tradition claims that Patrick came up with the design for the Celtic cross, and that we have him to thank for all of those magnificently massive stone high crosses spread across Ireland. As the story goes, the ring or nimbus that is incorporated into the cross is meant to represent the sun, as Patrick found that Irish pagans worshipped, amongst others, a sun god (possibly Lugh). There are competing explanations as to why this design choice was made: Either the cross was laid on top of the sun to demonstrate the Christian God’s superiority over the sun god, or the cross and sun were melded together to demonstrate an equivalency.
Either way… Patrick likely had no hand in the design, as the symbol of an encircled cross predates him by centuries. What’s more, the first stone high crosses weren’t constructed in Ireland until the eighth or ninth centuries, well after his time. As for Patrick’s role in engineering Ireland’s first churches, there’s simply no historical record of it. To quote Terry O’Hagan:
“[Patrick] never mentions the founding or building of church sites. Indeed, he never mentions churches at all.”source: “Will the Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up” (JSTOR Daily)
10. Was St. Patrick really a saint?
This is one of those pieces of trivia you’ll hear spouted from the mouths of those truth-obsessed writers who make it their mission to uncover little-known facts about popular topics. (Wait, why are you looking at me like that? I’m not… I mean, I am, but… Moving on…) This particular and now oft-quoted factoid goes something like this: “St. Patrick isn’t a real saint because he was never formally canonized by a pope.”
Like any good piece of trivia intended to rankle, there is a kernel of truth here: St. Patrick was not formally canonized by Pope Celestine. There’s no doubt about it. It never happened. But here’s a crucial piece of information missing from this observation: The Pope didn’t canonize St. Patrick because that’s not something popes did during the era St. Patrick lived in. As noted in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The first saint canonized by a pope was Ulrich, bishop of Augsburg, who died in 973 and was canonized by Pope John XV at the Lateran Council of 993. Pope Alexander III (1159–81) began to reserve the cases of canonization to the Holy See, and this became general law under Gregory IX (1227–41).source: “Canonization” (Encyclopedia Britannica)
It wasn’t until 1234 CE that Pope Gregory IX put the official papal procedures in place for investigating the lives of potential saints and their alleged miracles. Prior to that, there was a different, more localized procedure for canonization, and as noted by Mike McCormack of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, that procedure was indeed followed when it came to venerating St. Patrick:
“On June 9, 1186, no less than 15 Bishops, many abbots and high dignitaries and a great gathering of clergy and laity witnessed the official Solemn Translation of the relics of St. Patrick, St. Columcille, and St. Brigid, at Downpatrick… some of the relics were enshrined and placed on the high Altar and some were brought back to Rome… Documented evidence exists in many authentic sources that Saint Patrick was indeed formally canonized by the official ritual established by the Roman Catholic Church at the time!”source: “St. Patrick IS a Saint!” (Ancient Order of Hibernians)
11. Did St. Patrick bring Christianity to Ireland?
There’s no doubt that St. Patrick popularized Christianity in Ireland, helping it become the dominant religion, but the claim that he single-handedly brought the religion to Ireland is spurious.
For starters, there’s our old pal Palladius, whom we mentioned earlier, the first bishop of the Christians of Ireland. While he did not have the staying power of Patrick, and was allegedly banished from Ireland by the king of Leinster (source: Lives of the Saints), the argument could be made that Palladius had to crawl so Patrick could walk.
But Palladius aside, pockets of Christianity existed prior to either man’s arrival. As Juilene Osborne-McKnight explains:
“Most Americans believe that Christianity came to Ireland with St. Patrick. Why else would we dress up and drink green beer on March 17? In truth, however, by the time St. Patrick go to Ireland, somewhere around 431 [CE] or so, Christianity already existed in scattered pockets throughout the country. Historians are not sure how it arrived, but there was certainly extensive trading with Rome. Slavery, which was the norm at the time, may have been profoundly influential in spreading Christianity throughout Ireland.”source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans
12. Did St. Patrick perform miracles?
Look, I’ve already spent a lot of time calling St. Patrick’s legacy into question and casting doubt on nearly everything he’s purported to have accomplished. So instead of trying to convince you that miracles aren’t real and that most can be explained away by coincidence or misinterpretation or embellishment or straight-up fabrication, I’m simply going to take this time to share some of the miracles St. Patrick was alleged to have performed…
…except for this first one. I’m going to pick this one apart for the sake of halting the spread of misinformation.
The miracle of St. Patrick raising the dead is widely, and wrongly, reported to be historical, as some (misinformed) people attribute the following quotation directly to St. Patrick, claiming it came from one of his letters:
“The Lord hath given to me, though humble, the power of working miracles among a barbarous people, such as are not recorded to have been worked by the great Apostles; inasmuch as, in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, I have raised from the dead bodies that have been buried many years…”
Here’s the thing though: Patrick never wrote that. Not in his Confession nor in his Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. (Go check!) Where that quotation comes from, in fact, is a twelfth-century hagiography, The Life and Acts of St. Patrick. And that work (and others like it) is the source of many of the miracles attributed to St. Patrick. These include the snake-driving, which you’re already familiar with, as well as the miracle of Patrick turning himself and his twenty companions into a herd of deer so that they could escape the clutches of some angry druids. (Note: The deer story is where the ancient Irish prayer of protection, or lorica, often attributed to St. Patrick, got its name: “The Deer’s Cry“. It also goes by the name “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate”, as lorica originally meant “armor” in Latin.)
One seemingly miraculous event that Patrick did write about (in his Confession) occurred shortly after Patrick escaped slavery and boarded a ship to mainland Europe. Having made landfall, Patrick and his shipmates “travelled through a wilderness” for twenty-eight days. Eventually, they ran ran out of food. Here’s what happened next, in Patrick’s own words:
“The captain turned to me and said: ‘What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful – why can’t you pray for us, since we’re in a bad state with hunger? There’s no sign of us finding a human being anywhere!’ Then I said to them with some confidence: ‘Turn in faith with all your hearts to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for him, so that he may put food in your way – even enough to make you fully satisfied! He has an abundance everywhere.’ With the help of God, this is actually what happened! A herd of pigs appeared in the way before our eyes!”source: The Confession of St. Patrick
Ask and you shall receive… bacon. If anyone out there was looking for a justification (beyond deliciousness) for eating a full Irish breakfast on St. Patrick’s Day, now you have it.
13. Did St. Patrick speak Irish?
Yes, St. Patrick spoke Irish, likely learning it—or at least the basics of it—during his six years as a shepherd-slave. Irish was certainly his de facto language during his ministry in Ireland, as he reserved Latin for communication with Church officials and other Romanized individuals. But from his own admission, we know that Patrick’s Latin was not very good, as, having been kidnapped as a teenager, he never completed his formal education. To quote Patrick’s Confession:
“…I have long been thinking of writing, but up to the present I hesitated; for I feared lest I should transgress against the tongue of men, seeing that I am not learned like others, who in the best style therefore have drunk in both laws and sacred letters in equal perfection; and who from their infancy never changed their mother tongue; but were rather making it always more perfect. My speech, however, and my style were changed into the tongue of the stranger, as can easily be perceived in the flavour of my writings how I am trained and instructed in languages…”source: The Confession of St. Patrick
Assuming the Welsh origin for St. Patrick, we can also assume that he spoke Welsh, which is from the Brythonic branch of Celtic languages. Irish, on the other hand, is from the Goidelic, or Gaelic, branch. For someone living in the fifth century, before the dawn of language-learning apps—or even printed translation dictionaries, for that matter—being trilingual must have been challenging. As Thomas Cahill explains:
“One sometimes wonders, reading his Confession…if the poor man even has a language of his own. His mother tongue was possibly an early form of Welsh, though it is just as likely that…the ‘native’ tongue was for the servants and only Latin was spoken by the family. He missed all but elementary Latin schooling—and then was plunged into a new language: Irish, similar in certain ways to Welsh, but even at this period markedly different.”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
14. Did St. Patrick have siblings?
In his Confession, Patrick asserts that he has “many thousands of… brothers and sisters.” Of course, in this instance, he’s referring to “the children whom [he] baptized in the Lord.”
But what about biological siblings?
While Patrick doesn’t mention them himself, tradition tells us that he had two sisters, Darerca and Lupita (sometime Lupida). What’s more, it’s asserted that both of these sisters were abducted and brought to Ireland by the same raiding party that took Patrick. To quote Seumas MacManus:
“[A]t the age of sixteen he was taken captive, with his two sisters, Darerca and Lupida. It was a raid made by the men who sailed on a fleet of King Niall…They were borne to Ireland and his sisters said to have been placed in Muirthemne (Louth) while he was sold to an Antrim chieftain named Miliue, who set him herding his flocks in the valley of Braid, around the foot of the mountain, Sliab Mis.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
According to tradition, the siblings were eventually reunited in Ireland. And while Patrick’s sisters did not gain same the level of notoriety that their brother did, they did both become saints: St. Darerca and St. Lupita. (How’s that for some sibling rivalry?)
In the case of St. Darerca, she went on to have seventeen (or more) children—Patrick’s nieces and nephews—many of whom also became saints. These include daughters St. Eiche of Kilglass and St. Lalloc of Senlis, and sons St. Reat, St. Nenn, St. Aedh, St. Mel of Ardagh, St. Rioc of Inisboffin, St. Muinis of Forgney, St. Maelchu, St. Sechnall of Dunshaughlin, St. Nectan of Killunche and Fennor, St. Auxilius of Killossey, St. Diarmaid of Druim-corcortri, St. Crummin of Lecua, St. Miduu, St. Carantoc, and St. Maceaith.
Not to rain on this parade of saints, but I should reiterate at this point that the historicity of Patrick’s sisters (and his nieces and nephews) is questionable at best. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that when it comes to St. Darerca, it’s hard to be sure what’s real and what’s fantasy:
Much obscurity attaches to her history, and it is not easy to disentangle the actual facts of her history from the network of legend which medieval writers interwove with her acts.source: “St. Darerca” (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia)
15. Was St. Patrick married?
No, there is no historical or hagiographical evidence to suggest that St. Patrick had a wife. That’s not to say, however, that he didn’t take an interest in members of the opposite sex.
Case in point: After baptizing a woman from an elite family—who, in some accounts, turns out to be one of Ireland’s other patron saints, St. Brigid—Patrick reflects on how attractive she is. As Thomas Cahill explains:
“[Patrick’s] love for his adopted people shines through his writings, and it is not just a generalized ‘Christian’ benevolence, but a love for individuals as they are. He tells us of ‘a blessed woman, Irish by birth, noble, extraordinarily beautiful (pulcherrima)—a true adult—whom I baptized.’ Who could imagine such frank admiration of a woman from the pen of Augustine?”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
While seemingly innocuous, this is a highly unusual observation for a Catholic bishop to make. And it ties into a broader historical theme of Patrick not really caring too much about chastity. To quote Cahill:
“Where, in Patrick’s own story, is there any negative treatment of the temptations of the flesh? … It may simply be that Patrick, in his zeal to baptize—to wash clean—Irish imagination, was not as sex-obsessed as his continental brethren and felt little need to stress these matters… Even the monasteries he established were not especially notable for their rigid devotion to the rule of chastity; and as late as the end of the twelfth century… the kings of Clan Conaill continue to be inaugurated in the high style of their ancestors—by public copulations with a white mare.”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
16. Was St. Patrick gay?
There is no evidence to support a gay St. Patrick. If anything, history (as we just explored above) points to Patrick being an unabashed fan of women. However, there is one incident, which Patrick recorded himself in his Confession, that may have given rise to such a rumor.
After escaping slavery and trekking an estimated two hundred miles to the coast to catch his ship (the one God had told him about in a dream), the crew of said ship didn’t simply let him aboard. To quote Patrick:
“The day I arrived, the ship was about to leave the place. I said I needed to set sail with them, but the captain was not at all pleased. He replied unpleasantly and angrily: ‘Don’t you dare try to come with us.’ When I heard that, I left them and went back to the hut where I had lodgings. I began to pray while I was going; and before I even finished the prayer, I heard one of them shout aloud at me: ‘Come quickly – those men are calling you!’ I turned back right away, and they began to say to me: ‘Come – we’ll trust you. Prove you’re our friend in any way you wish.’ That day, I refused to suck their breasts, because of my reverence for God.”source: The Confession of St. Patrick
If you’re wondering what in the heck is happening in the above scene, wonder no longer: It’s likely a case of Patrick simply not understanding a local Irish custom. As Thomas Cahill explains:
“[The sailors] even offered their nipples to be sucked, the ancient Irish version of ‘kiss and make up.’ Patricius, too much the Roman for such outré goings-on, held back—he says ‘for fear of God,’ but better minds than Patricius’s have succumbed to a confusion of Roman custom and Christian faith. The sailors shrugged: ‘You can make friends with us however you like.’ Patricius jumped on board, and they sailed at once.”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
While Patrick himself likely never engaged in homosexuality (or even innocent nipple-sucking), he makes no mention of speaking out against it. And even if he did speak out against homosexuality, he failed to make a convincing argument. To quote Cahill:
“Before [Patrick’s] mission, Irish sexual arrangements were relatively improvisational. Trial ‘marriages’ of one year, multiple partners, and homosexual relations among warriors on campaign were all more or less the order of the day. Despite Patrick’s great success in changing the warrior mores of the Irish tribes, their sexual mores altered little.”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
17. Was St. Patrick Catholic?
Considering that he studied to become a Roman Catholic bishop, and that he’s included among the Catholic Church’s list of saints, it seems obvious that St. Patrick was Catholic. Indeed, some St. Patrick aficionados, Seumas MacManus included, become indignant at the suggestion that he was otherwise:
“In recent times several ingenious people have demonstrated to their own complete satisfaction that Patrick was a Protestant, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, a Baptist—a Jew even—almost everything except what he was—and that he founded in Ireland in an independent church which they call the Celtic Church. These absurd contentions are set at rest—if they needed setting at rest—by the Canon of St. Patrick, preserved in the old Book of Armagh—which was finished by the scribed Firdomnach in 807—a Canon which those very learned Protestant Irish scholars, Usher and Whitley Stokes, accept as proof of his Roman authority and affiliation.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
A couple things to unpack here:
First, the source MacManus cites as indisputable proof of St. Patrick’s Catholicism was set down, by his own admission, centuries after the era in which St. Patrick lived (and preached). While an interesting historical artifact, the Canon of St. Patrick—unlike St. Patrick’s Confession and Letter to Coroticus—cannot be directly attributed to the man himself.
Second, while St. Patrick likely would’ve considered himself a Catholic, it’s also likely (as we explored earlier) that he went to Ireland without the official blessing of the Roman Catholic Church. What’s more, the “flavor” of Christianity he introduced to Ireland—or at least the one that took hold there—was undoubtedly different from what Church leaders were teaching back in Rome. To quote Juilene Osborne-McKnight:
“[O]ne has the feeling that by the end of his life, Patrick has become ‘more Irish than the Irish,’ that he has come to love his converts and his adopted land. What he never did achieve, however, was any sense of converting the Irish to a Romanized version of Christianity.“source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans
The legacy of St. Patrick clearly isn’t the legacy of a man who eradicated paganism in Ireland and replaced it with a pure, Church-approved version of Catholicism. There was, to a certain degree, a blending of beliefs and ideologies. One only has to look at the current state of affairs—and celebrations—in Catholic Ireland and throughout the Irish-Catholic diaspora to see that this was the case. As Thomas Cahill explains:
“Unlike the continental church fathers, the Irish never troubled themselves overmuch about eradicating pagan influences, which they tended to wink at and enjoy. The pagan festivals continued to be celebrated, which is why we today can still celebrate the Irish feasts of May Day [Beltaine / Beltane] and Hallowe’en [Samin / Samhain].”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
18. Did St. Patrick commit genocide? Did he kill pagans? Did he battle druids?
I’m lumping these questions together because they all make the same general accusation, which is that Patrick used violence to spread Christianity in Ireland. And despite what certain corners of the internet might tell you, there’s no evidence that St. Patrick committed genocide, nor is there any evidence that he killed or even fought with any of the native Irish he encountered during his ministry—druids included.
Let’s start with the genocide “theory”, and boy, is this one a doozie. In recent years, memes and social media posts, which tend to surface around St. Patrick’s Day, have put forth the baseless claim that Ireland’s original inhabitants were Twa pygmies from Central Africa. Allegedly the source of Ireland’s folkloric leprechauns, these pygmies were subsequently wiped out by St. Patrick when he came to preach the Gospel.
If your bullshit detector is going haywire right now, that’s a good sign. Your detector is in working order.
Snopes, not surprisingly, rated this claim False, and quoted a historian who called it “complete nonsense.” The fact-checking site also offered this explanation for why the claim has no basis in reality.
“The earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation on the island of Ireland dates to between 10,640 and 10,860 B.C. No evidence exists to show that Twa pygmies settled the island at any point in history, beyond which it makes little sense to imagine that a traditional hunter-forager people that emerged from landlocked Central Africa would have had the geographical awareness or technical knowledge to construct and sail ships thousands of miles northwest.”source: “Did St. Patrick Wipe Out an African ‘Pygmy’ Tribe, the First Inhabitants of Ireland?” (Snopes)
At this point, I’d also like to state for the record that there is no evidence of leprechauns ever having existed. The mischievous miniature men who now grace boxes of sugary American cereal are likely derived from the Irish god Lugh, who, according to Irish mythology, was driven underground (along with the rest of the old gods) after losing a battle to the Milesians. Over time, the once mighty god saw his reputation—and stature—diminished in Irish folk tales until he became “little stooping Lugh” or Lugh-chromain (anglicized as “Leprechaun”). To quote Irish poet W. B. Yeats:
“When the pagan gods of Ireland–the Tuath-De-Danān–robbed of worship and offerings, grew smaller and smaller in the popular imagination, until they turned into the fairies, the pagan heroes grew bigger and bigger, until they turned into the giants.”source: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
Now, as for St. Patrick smiting pagans and doing battle with druids, such accounts are as equally folkloric as the tales of fairies and leprechauns. They were invented by believers who, perhaps not enthralled by Patrick’s own version of events, wanted to inject a bit more excitement into his life story. In one account, written two centuries after Patrick’s death, the saint has a Gandalf-vs.-Saruman-style showdown with a druid, which ends with Patrick sending the druid flying through the air. The druid crashes to the ground and breaks his skull. (Definitely not what Jesus had in mind when he said “Turn the other cheek.”)
The reality is that Patrick seemingly cared about and respected the people he was converting. Instead of fighting druids, he would have been more likely to attempt to recruit them. As Juilene Osborne-McKnight explains:
“[Patrick’s] ‘biographers’—two monks named Tirechán and Muirchu, as well as many later hagiographers—mythologized Patrick into someone he never was: a man who fought with druids, used shamrocks to teach the trinity, and drove the snakes from Ireland. In truth, many druids became priests of the new religion, Patrick surely didn’t need shamrocks to teach a people who already had tripartite gods, and Ireland never had any snakes in the first place!”source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans
All this being said, just because Patrick never killed any Irishmen (or women), that doesn’t mean he never killed anyone ever…
19. Was St. Patrick a murderer? Why did he write his Confession?
This is one of the biggest mysteries, if not the biggest mystery, surrounding St. Patrick. Let me the lay groundwork for you:
Back when Patrick was undergoing his religious training, he made a confession to one of his closest friends. This was how the Catholic concept of “confession” went down back in Patrick’s time. It was a declaration one made publicly, or to a friend. So Patrick, following standard operating procedure, spilled the beans: At age fifteen, before he was kidnapped, Patrick committed a sin. In his own words, it was something he had done “in one hour.”
Decades later, that hour-long lapse in judgment would come back to haunt him.
As we’ve already touched upon, Patrick’s contemporaries, including his own family back in Britain, were none-too-happy about his going to Ireland. They couldn’t understand why he’d want to leave the “civilized” Roman world to go preach to a bunch of (what they considered to be) barbarians. They didn’t trust him. And when they learned that Patrick would sometimes pay Irish kings for protection, so that he might have access to potential converts (something Patrick freely admitted to), they lashed out. To quote Terry O’Hagan:
“[Patrick] was accused of having ulterior motives for going back to Ireland on his own volition. His ability to attract healthy donations and his dispensing of payments to pagans was viewed as highly suspicious. They seem to have accused him of financial irregularities and profiteering from Christian services. Patrick’s defense against such claims was that this was the cultural reality on the ground. He categorically denied personally profiting from any such activities and presents his mission as one which was constantly spending whatever it received on further expansion and security.”source: “Will the Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up” (JSTOR Daily)
These attacks are what prompted Patrick to write his Confession. The attacks culminated in Patrick’s “close friend” betraying him and making public the sin he had already confessed to some thirty years earlier.
But if you take the time to peruse Patrick’s Confession, you might notice something: Patrick’s hour-long lapse in judgment is conspicuously absent. He doesn’t mention the sin. The people want to know, Patrick: What was it?
Considering he was fifteen at the time, an age when hormones are notoriously raging, a sin of a sexual nature seems plausible. However, some scholars suggest that participation in a pagan ritual is a more likely candidate, as sexual sins weren’t really considered a big deal back then, and whatever this sin was, the Church hierarchy took it seriously. Here’s Juilene Osborne-McKnight’s explanation of the pagan-ritual sin theory:
“Patrick grew up in a Romanized area that was being abandoned by the Roman soldiery, who were being called back to the mother country. Many Romans practiced a pagan religion called Mithraism, based on a Persian boy who slays a white bull, returns fertility to the harvest, and is rewarded with life in heaven. This was an appealing and hopeful religion for soldiers who were trained and paid to fight and die. Perhaps Patrick participated in one of their temple ceremonies. We will never know.”source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans
Thomas Cahill has another theory, however, one that connects the sin of Patrick’s youth to older Patrick’s abhorrence of violence. It is a sin of a serious enough nature that Patrick would have felt compelled to share it—to unburden himself of it—prior to his ordination. To quote Cahill:
“My guess is that the sin was murder. He was fifteen—and how many sins are available to a fifteen-year-old that would still bother him by midlife, especially after a life as various and harsh as Patrick’s?…Despite Augustine’s later preoccupations, sexual sins were not high on most people’s lists those days. Theft on a grand scale would have been even more unlikely, given his family’s atmosphere and attentiveness. But murder, especially of a slave or servant, would have borne no social consequences—nor would it have meant much to the murderer until he found himself at the receiving end of someone else’s brutality. In any case, the ferocity of this normally placid, quiet man courses to the surface only when slavery or human carnage is the subject.”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
20. Was St. Patrick a martyr?
By all accounts, St. Patrick died of natural causes at the ripe old age (very ripe, for the fifth century) of 74, or thereabouts. He did not die a martyr—and this in and of itself earns St. Patrick, and his adopted country of Ireland, a special place in the history books. As Thomas Cahill explains:
“Ireland is unique in religious history for being the only land into which Christianity was introduced without bloodshed. There are no Irish martyrs (at least not till Elizabeth I began to create them eleven centuries after Patrick).”source: How the Irish Saved Civilization
And while Patrick was not a martyr, it should be noted that he was not afraid of becoming one. We know this from his own hand. To quote Patrick:
“I bore many persecutions, even chains, so that I could give up my freeborn state for the sake of others. If I be worthy, I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name. It is [in Ireland] that I wish to spend my life until I die, if the Lord should grant it to me.”source: The Confession of St. Patrick
A decade ago, I wrote a short blog post about St. Patrick’s Day, in which I revealed a few facts about Ireland’s favorite saint. But admittedly, it was scantily researched. Glossing over St. Patrick’s own writings, I stuck solely to the popular talking points: Teaching the Trinity with shamrocks. Chasing away (non-existent) snakes.
And without delving too deeply into my own, personal views on Catholicism, Christianity, or organized religion as a whole, I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by what I learned about Maewyn Succat, the man who would become St. Patrick.
He was unexpectedly progressive on many fronts, and despite him possibly having killed someone (a hypothesis that will likely never be proven one way or the other), he comes across as an overall good bloke. A sound lad. Humble, friendly, and courageous are just a few of the words that come to mind. Of course, I am by no means the only person to have such a revelation. To quote Seumas MacManus:
[Patrick] proved to be a world figure—one of the massive giants who tower distinct and sublime above the dense mists of dim antiquity—one, too, of whom it may truly be said that the more intimately you approach him and the nearer you view him, the greater he grows.source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
And yet… if there’s anything I loathe most in my interactions with other humans, it is unsolicited advice. And who was Patrick, if not someone who thought he knew better than an entire island full of people? I do find some comfort, however, in knowing that compared to other such Christian proselytizers—those who incited violence rather seeking to squelch it—Patrick was considerably more respectful and decent and peace-loving. As Thomas Cahill writes:
“Patrick was really a first—the first missionary to barbarians beyond the reach of Roman law. The step he took was in its way as bold as Columbus’s, and a thousand times more humane.”(source: How the Irish Saved Civilization)
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