Where Did St. Patrick Get His Staff?

photo of stained glass window showing St. Patrick in green

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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, because Patrick 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 in later posts. 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. St. Patrick was an actual shepherd.


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 Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland

by Seumas MacManus

Per the publisher: “A classic history of the Irish people from their prehistoric origins to their fight for independence in twentieth century. It provides fascinating insight into the origins of their culture, religion, laws, arts, antiquities, folklore, trade, literature, heroes, and more. MacManus sketches brilliant overviews of a number of the most famous figures from the country’s past, some of whom, like St. Patrick, allowed the Irish to flourish, whilst others, like Oliver Cromwell, persecuted them. ” Learn more…


How the Irish Saved Civilization

by Thomas Cahill

Per the publisher: “Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but they may not be aware of how great an influence St. Patrick was on the subsequent history of civilization. Not only did he bring Christianity to Ireland, he instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions that allowed Ireland to become ‘the isle of saints and scholars’ — and thus preserve Western culture while Europe was being overrun by barbarians.” Learn more…


The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans

by Juilene Osborne-McKnight

Per the publisher: “Many Irish-Americans today know little about Ireland and their ancestry. Historian Juilene Osborne-McKnight presents Irish-American history in a compelling narrative form, accented with photographs, illustrations, and original, literary interludes. Osborne-McKnight pays homage to her ancestry in this chronicle of the Irish from ancient times to contemporary America.” 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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