St. Patrick, a real Saint or Sham as Shamrock?

St Patrick is perhaps the world’s best known saints. In addition to being the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick is also the patron saint of Australia, Nigeria, and Montserrat, which grants him universal recognition in the Church and throughout the world. As Saint Paul was “Apostle to the Gentiles” Patrick might be considered “Apostle” of the Irish worldwide. But, Patrick, or the man we know as St Patrick was never canonised by the Catholic Church. He is a saint in name only having never gained the official title.

Who was Patrick?

This is an interesting question as local histories and legends of Patrick vary from place to place, and these stories of an evangelist who converted Ireland from paganism to Christianity are spread over a period and geography that suggest they originate not with one man but with at least three.

However, there are historical records, including writings, credited to one main figure, a man names Maewyn Succat and it is with him that most of the legends are associated. 

Maewyn Succat was born into a Franco/British Roman family, probably at Ravenglass in Cumbria. His father Calpurnius was a deacon and his grandfather Potitus was a priest from Bonaven Tabernia, (France) There is an argument that suggests Maewyn was born in France but no conclusive evidence.

What we do know from the Confessio is that the young Maewyn was not an active believer in Christianity his youth. (Another rebellious teenager….go figure)

Maewyn was kidnapped by Irish raiders when he was about seventeen and, depending on which source you chose to believe, was taken to either Slemish (Sliabh Mish), a striking mountain near Ballymena, Co. Antrim, or Fochill near Killala Bay (in Irish Cuan Chill Ala), the River Moy estuary, and was sold as a slave.

Maewyn was put to work as either a shepherd or a swineherd and again, depending on which source you choose to believe, was either given no food to eat, or was treated well; it is likely that it was the latter as the purchase of a slave was a significant investment and it is unlikely such a valuable asset would be risked through starvation.

In his Confessio, (Confession of Saint Patrick) in which he uses the name Patricius (Father of the people) he claims that during his captivity he experienced what amounted to a spiritual epiphany, and that he came to know God, praying up to a hundred times a day. He claims to have heard a voice in a dream instructing him to leave Ireland on a ship waiting for him two hundred miles away.

Again history and myth disagree on how the boy, by then a man, left Ireland, but it is likely he was freed at the end of a term of six years which would have been common at the time and that, with the blessing of his previous masters, he travelled east or south east to find a boat to take him home.

It is commonly held that he found a boat about to sail for England from Wicklow. At first the crew declined to take him. Patrick turned to prayer and God duly replied, for the Captain experienced his own epiphany, or had a sudden change of heart, and agreed to take Patrick before he had even completed his devotions.

A popular legend tells how the boat landed after three days at sea, not in England, but in a mysterious desert where the luckless crew wandered for twenty-eight days before running out of food and water. The crew begged Patrick to pray to his god to provide for them (the crew had clearly forsaken their own pagan gods). Patrick obliged, and soon after the travellers came across a herd of wild boar and after slaughtering them, feasted for two days before continuing their journey.

Returning home, Patrick devoted himself to Christianity and became a priest. Some years later Patrick dreamt of a man, Victoricus, who brought him a letter from the people of Ireland, asking him to come back and teach them the new religion. Patrick took this as a calling and he answered it. (It is more likely that he was dispatched by Rouen’s bishop, Vitricius, as a missionary to convert the Irish pagans to Christianity.)

Patrick returned to Ireland with a number of others and with enough supplies to support them until they became established. It is believed he landed first on a small island (Church Island) off the coastal town of Skerries in north Dublin.

Patrick was clever enough not to force Christianity on the people but instead manipulated them subtly by harnessing their own beliefs and using them as symbols of his god. This is demonstrated in some of the more popular stories of Patrick.

Shamrock and the Trinity

The Holy Trinity states that there is only one God but that God consists of God the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit. It’s a complicated idea which has been troubling theologians’ minds for 2,000 years. Legend has it that the pagan people of Ireland attempted to convert, but they couldn’t grasp this conflicting notion of a god that was one and also three.

It’s said Patrick used the shamrock as a way to explain the mystery to them. The shamrock was a single, three-leaf herb, each leaf representing one facet of God.
It is another myth believed to have started with Irish monks, who were not above a little pro-Christian propaganda.

Despite the belief that Patrick was responsible for making the shamrock an important emblem for the Irish, truth is, it was in fact popular for thousands of years. The ancient Celts claimed that all of the important aspects of life come in groups of three, and this was symbolised by the shamrock.

St Patrick creates the Celtic Cross

When preaching to the Irish, Patrick is said to have tried wherever possible to incorporate Christianity with their older religious beliefs. The story goes that Patrick saw circular patterns that the Celts liked and wanted to combine those patterns with the Christian cross. The idea was that if it adopted symbols from its own religion, the Cross of the new faith would be more palatable to the Irish. The story however, is also unlikely to be real (more monks with too much time on their hands). The design of the cross was popular with the Celts long before Christ or Christianity as it symbolised among other things, north, south, east and west, as well as earth, fire, air and water. Add to this that the inner passages of the ancient passage graves that dot the Irish landscape and date back as much as 8000 years are built in the shape of a cross.

Saint or not, Patrick and those other missionaries of the time had a tremendous influence on the people of Ireland. His Confessio, written by Patrick in defence of his good name, after his character was targeted by those in power, is brief, but it forms a fascinating tale of his life and times through his own eyes.

It’s said Patrick founded a church in Co Down at Saul (in Irish Sabhall Phádraig, meaning’ Patrick’s Barn’). And that he was brought there when he died, and was buried in nearby Downpatrick. It is reputed that St Patrick’s Memorial Church was built on the site of his grave. I am unsure about this, I would find it a lot easier to accept if it was only Patrick that was said to be interred there. However, the site also claims to house the grave of St Brigid and of Columcille.

“In Down, three saints one grave do fill,
Patrick, Brigid and Columcille.”

A visit to the Saint Patrick’s centre at the site is a fascinating experience and it is likely that if you are a ‘grain of salt’ type, that you will leave with a better understanding of the duplicitous stories and legends of the the man called Patrick.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit

Happy St Patrick’s Day.

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