What Was St. Patrick’s Job?

photo of a stained glass window showing St. Patrick tending sheep

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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
photo of green field in Ireland
Field in County Antrim, Northern Ireland (source: Dimitry Anikin, Unsplash)

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

Want to learn more about Saint Patrick? Check out…

Saint Patrick in Your Pocket

Separate man from myth, fact from folklore, in this small but mighty pocket guide dedicated to uncovering lesser-known facts about Ireland’s most beloved patron saint. Armed with answers to these 20 tantalizing questions, you’ll be the smartest reveler in the room at your next Saint Patrick’s Day party. Learn more…

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