Did St. Patrick Commit Genocide? Did He Kill Pagans? Did He Battle Druids?

illustration of st. patrick preaching to irish pagans

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I’m lumping these questions together because they all make the same general accusation, which is that Patrick used violence to spread Christianity in Ireland. And despite what certain corners of the internet might tell you, there’s no evidence that St. Patrick committed genocide, nor is there any evidence that he killed or even fought with any of the native Irish he encountered during his ministry—druids included.

Let’s start with the genocide “theory”, and boy, is this one a doozie. In recent years, memes and social media posts, which tend to surface around St. Patrick’s Day, have put forth the baseless claim that Ireland’s original inhabitants were Twa pygmies from Central Africa. Allegedly the source of Ireland’s folkloric leprechauns, these pygmies were subsequently wiped out by St. Patrick when he came to preach the Gospel.

If your bullshit detector is going haywire right now, that’s a good sign. Your detector is in working order.

Snopes, not surprisingly, rated this claim False, and quoted a historian who called it “complete nonsense.” The fact-checking site also offered this explanation for why the claim has no basis in reality.

“The earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation on the island of Ireland dates to between 10,640 and 10,860 B.C. No evidence exists to show that Twa pygmies settled the island at any point in history, beyond which it makes little sense to imagine that a traditional hunter-forager people that emerged from landlocked Central Africa would have had the geographical awareness or technical knowledge to construct and sail ships thousands of miles northwest.”

source: “Did St. Patrick Wipe Out an African ‘Pygmy’ Tribe, the First Inhabitants of Ireland?” (Snopes)

At this point, I’d also like to state for the record that there is no evidence of leprechauns ever having existed. The mischievous miniature men who now grace boxes of sugary American cereal are likely derived from the Irish god Lugh, who, according to Irish mythology, was driven underground (along with the rest of the old gods) after losing a battle to the Milesians. Over time, the once mighty god saw his reputation—and stature—diminished in Irish folk tales until he became “little stooping Lugh” or Lugh-chromain (anglicized as “Leprechaun”). To quote Irish poet W. B. Yeats:

“When the pagan gods of Ireland–the Tuath-De-Danān–robbed of worship and offerings, grew smaller and smaller in the popular imagination, until they turned into the fairies, the pagan heroes grew bigger and bigger, until they turned into the giants.”

source: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry

Now, as for St. Patrick smiting pagans and doing battle with druids, such accounts are as equally folkloric as the tales of fairies and leprechauns. They were invented by believers who, perhaps not enthralled by Patrick’s own version of events, wanted to inject a bit more excitement into his life story. In one account, written two centuries after Patrick’s death, the saint has a Gandalf-vs.-Saruman-style showdown with a druid, which ends with Patrick sending the druid flying through the air. The druid crashes to the ground and breaks his skull. (Definitely not what Jesus had in mind when he said “Turn the other cheek.”)

The reality is that Patrick seemingly cared about and respected the people he was converting. Instead of fighting druids, he would have been more likely to attempt to recruit them. As Juilene Osborne-McKnight explains: 

“[Patrick’s] ‘biographers’—two monks named Tirechán and Muirchu, as well as many later hagiographers—mythologized Patrick into someone he never was: a man who fought with druids, used shamrocks to teach the trinity, and drove the snakes from Ireland. In truth, many druids became priests of the new religion, Patrick surely didn’t need shamrocks to teach a people who already had tripartite gods, and Ireland never had any snakes in the first place!”

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

All this being said, just because Patrick never killed any Irishmen (or women), that doesn’t mean he never killed anyone ever…

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 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…

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…

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…

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:

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