Who Was The Real St. Patrick?

Photographed above is St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin Ireland.

March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, the traditional day celebrating the patron saint of Ireland.  While many Americans celebrate the day by wearing green, donning a shamrock, or cooking Irish stew, few know who the real St. Patrick was or why we are celebrating.  To be sure, there are many legends about St. Patrick, but the real St. Patrick is truly an amazing character whose story is worth telling.

Surprisingly, Patrick was not born in Ireland.  Rather, he was born in Roman Britain, likely to a wealthy family, and grew up Christian, though his early years were mired in unbelief by his own confession.  At the age of 16, he was kidnapped from his home by Irish raiders and taken into slavery in Ireland.  It was during these dark years of slavery that Patrick began to turn his heart to God, who he says, “watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, he protected me and consoled me as a father would a son.” 

Eventually, Patrick escaped his slavery by walking 200 miles through bogs and forests.  Returning to Britain, Patrick continued to learn and grow in his Christian faith and became a priest.  It was at that time he began to hear the call to return to Ireland as a missionary.  Over his parents’ objection, he returned to Ireland to spread Christianity to the remote island. 

While St. Patrick was not the first Christian missionary to Ireland, he is known as the most successful, traveling throughout the island, baptizing people, establishing churches, building schools, and founding monasteries.  His knowledge of the Irish language and culture, gained during his enslavement, helped him connect and communicate with the Irish in new ways.  This merging of cultures—Roman, British, Irish, and Christian—made St. Patrick unique.

At the time of his arrival, the Irish practiced a type of nature worship led by local druids who often pushed back against Christianity’s arrival.  St. Patrick was threatened and imprisoned on multiple occasions, but he persisted, fearlessly teaching the Irish about Christ.  As deeply spiritual and mystical people, the Irish people embraced Christianity and became passionate followers of this new religion.  St. Patrick is credited with ending Irish slavery, reducing intertribal wars, and likely ending the terrible practice of human sacrifice among the Celts.

The long-term impact of St. Patrick’s efforts has been tremendous.  Not only does Ireland remain a deeply Christian country to this day, but also some historians have credited the Christians of Ireland as “saving western civilization.”  According to historian Thomas Cahill, the Irish, as new converts to Christianity, were passionate students.  As a result, monasteries in Ireland became centers of academic study and repositories for Christian and ancient Greek texts.  When Rome fell, many of the ancient manuscripts located across mainland Europe were destroyed, but the Irish texts, set on this remote island at the edge of the known world, survived.

This St. Patrick’s Day, consider celebrating by learning more about this amazing man.  The 2020 movie I am Patrick by CBN films is a good start. Alternatively, you could read How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. 

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