Was St. Patrick a Murderer? Why Did He Write His Confession?

stained glass window showing St. Patrick preaching to his Irish disciples

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This is one of the biggest mysteries, if not the biggest mystery, surrounding St. Patrick. Let me the lay groundwork for you:

Back when Patrick was undergoing his religious training, he made a confession to one of his closest friends. This was how the Catholic concept of  “confession” went down back in Patrick’s time. It was a declaration one made publicly, or to a friend. So Patrick, following standard operating procedure, spilled the beans: At age fifteen, before he was kidnapped, Patrick committed a sin. In his own words, it was something he had done “in one hour.”

Decades later, that hour-long lapse in judgment would come back to haunt him.

As we’ve already touched upon, Patrick’s contemporaries, including his own family back in Britain, were none-too-happy about his going to Ireland. They couldn’t understand why he’d want to leave the “civilized” Roman world to go preach to a bunch of (what they considered to be) barbarians. They didn’t trust him. And when they learned that Patrick would sometimes pay Irish kings for protection, so that he might have access to potential converts (something Patrick freely admitted to), they lashed out. To quote Terry O’Hagan:

“[Patrick] was accused of having ulterior motives for going back to Ireland on his own volition. His ability to attract healthy donations and his dispensing of payments to pagans was viewed as highly suspicious. They seem to have accused him of financial irregularities and profiteering from Christian services. Patrick’s defense against such claims was that this was the cultural reality on the ground. He categorically denied personally profiting from any such activities and presents his mission as one which was constantly spending whatever it received on further expansion and security.”

source: “Will the Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up” (JSTOR Daily)

These attacks are what prompted Patrick to write his Confession. The attacks culminated in Patrick’s “close friend” betraying him and making public the sin he had already confessed to some thirty years earlier.

But if you take the time to peruse Patrick’s Confession, you might notice something: Patrick’s hour-long lapse in judgment is conspicuously absent. He doesn’t mention the sin. The people want to know, Patrick: What was it?

Considering he was fifteen at the time, an age when hormones are notoriously raging, a sin of a sexual nature seems plausible. However, some scholars suggest that participation in a pagan ritual is a more likely candidate, as sexual sins weren’t really considered a big deal back then, and whatever this sin was, the Church hierarchy took it seriously. Here’s Juilene Osborne-McKnight’s explanation of the pagan-ritual sin theory:

“Patrick grew up in a Romanized area that was being abandoned by the Roman soldiery, who were being called back to the mother country. Many Romans practiced a pagan religion called Mithraism, based on a Persian boy who slays a white bull, returns fertility to the harvest, and is rewarded with life in heaven. This was an appealing and hopeful religion for soldiers who were trained and paid to fight and die. Perhaps Patrick participated in one of their temple ceremonies. We will never know.”

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

Thomas Cahill has another theory, however, one that connects the sin of Patrick’s youth to older Patrick’s abhorrence of violence. It is a sin of a serious enough nature that Patrick would have felt compelled to share it—to unburden himself of it—prior to his ordination. To quote Cahill:

My guess is that the sin was murder. He was fifteen—and how many sins are available to a fifteen-year-old that would still bother him by midlife, especially after a life as various and harsh as Patrick’s?…Despite Augustine’s later preoccupations, sexual sins were not high on most people’s lists those days. Theft on a grand scale would have been even more unlikely, given his family’s atmosphere and attentiveness. But murder, especially of a slave or servant, would have borne no social consequences—nor would it have meant much to the murderer until he found himself at the receiving end of someone else’s brutality. In any case, the ferocity of this normally placid, quiet man courses to the surface only when slavery or human carnage is the subject.”

source: How the Irish Saved Civilization

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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