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…

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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