Was St. Patrick an Engineer?

stained glass window showing St. Patrick holding the coat of arms for a church he allegedly built

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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.

photo of a large stone Celtic cross in
A high cross at the Rock of Cashel in Ireland (source: Chmouel, Wikimedia Commons)

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)

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

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…

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…

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…


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:

More of the listenin’ type? For a limited time you can use this link to snag 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus.

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