Was St. Patrick a Real Person?

photo of a plaque marking the location of a well where St. Patrick baptized Irish pagans

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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, 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. 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)

Editor’s note: this article is an excerpt from “20 Questions With St. Patrick: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the ‘Apostle of Ireland’”


Further Reading

The Letters of Saint Patrick: An Historic New Translation

by John Luce and Marcus Losack

Per the publisher: “Written in the Fifth Century, Saint Patrick’s Letters have continued to be a source of inspiration and intrigue for so many people. A reflection of his ideals and faith, previous translations have already uncovered the deep personality at the heart of the Saint, inspiring many with his own words. Historical documents that they are though, scholars have striven to deliver the closest interpretation possible to attain a straight translation of the Letters, as even the smallest updates to perceived prior errors can award new insight into Saint Patrick’s holy message. Learn more…


The Confession of Saint Patrick and Letter to Coroticus

by John Skinner

Per the publisher: “Beyond being recognized as the patron saint of Ireland (perhaps for having chased some nonexistent snakes off the Emerald Isle), little else is popularly known about Saint Patrick.  And yet, Patrick left behind a unique document, his Confession, which tells us much about both his life and his beliefs.  This autobiography, originally written in the fifth century, and short by modern standards, is nonetheless a work that fascinates with its glimpse into the life of an intriguing man, and inspires with its testament of faith.” Learn more…


St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography

by Philip Freeman

Per the publisher: “Ireland’s patron saint has long been shrouded in legend, but the true story of St. Patrick is far more inspiring than the myths. In St. Patrick of Ireland, Philip Freeman brings the historic Patrick and his world vividly to life. Patrick speaks in his own voice in two remarkable letters he wrote about himself and his beliefs, new translations of which are included here and which are still astonishing for their passion and eloquence.” Learn more…


Patrick

by Stephen Lawhead

Per the publisher: “Set in an era of brutal conflict and turmoil, this epic adventure is the first novel to tell the full story of the slave who became a saint, of the man who rose to the challenge of his time and changed the course of history. In the summer of 405AD, Irish raiders attack the western coast of Wales, carving a fiery swathe through the peaceful countryside. Among the survivors who are rounded up and taken back to Ireland is Succat: an impulsive sixteen-year-old son of a powerful Roman family.” Learn more…


Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

by Tomie dePaola

Per the publisher: “An illustrated tribute to the Irish patron saint from the best-selling author of Quiet, Strega Nona, and many others. This timeless picture book, available in large-format paperback or as the board book Saint Patrick, is a perfect introduction to important Irish legends and an ideal St. Patrick’s day gift. Beloved children’s book author-illustrator Tomie dePaola recounts the life of Saint Patrick—from his noble birth in Britain, to his captivity in Ireland, to the visions which led him to return and found the first Christian church in Ireland.” Learn more…


Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

by multiple authors

A collection of 17 short stories, NEON DRUID mixes urban fantasy and Celtic mythology, creating a universe where lecherous leprechauns and debaucherous druids inhabit the local pubs, and where shapeshifting water spirits from Scotland and sword-wielding warriors from Ireland lurk in the alleyways. Stories range from tales of supernatural horror, to street-level fantasy adventures, to farcical, whiskey-drenched fairytales. Learn more…


More book ideas:


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