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)

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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