On March 17th every year, the whole world finds a little Irish inside of them and celebrates the anniversary of the death of Ireland’s Patron Saint, Patrick. This day has become a global commercial phenomenon, with even the most revered of world historical monuments lit up in green to celebrate a man whose life remains an enigma to many, the man and legend heavily intertwined.
Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in the latter 4th Century in what was then known as Briton. From a high ranking Roman family, his father Calphurnius was a Deacon and his mother Conchessa had strong links with the Church.
It was odd therefore that the young Maewyn was not active in the Church and was not raised under religious doctrine. Also unusual for a family of such high standing, the boy received very little education -something he would reflect on with regret in later life.
Life was very much uneventful, that is until he turned sixteen. Taken prisoner by Irish Pirates, Saint Patrick was sold into slavery in Ireland. He was sent to work in the North of Ireland as a Shepherd for a Chieftain known as Milchu. Saint Patrick’s Master was a Druid Priest and in his years of captivity Saint Patrick became well versed in Pagan worship and practices as well as fluent in the native Irish tongue.
Witness to Pagan rituals and left with much time alone on the hills of Antrim, Saint Patrick turned to God in his hour of need and prayed long and hard. After six years, Saint Patrick received a vision, some say an angel, telling him to escape. Stowing away on a ship, Patrick found himself reunited with his family.
The ordeal of kidnap and slavery had changed the young man. After all he had seen and heard Patrick was determined to rid Ireland of Paganism and bring Christianity to the shores of the Emerald Isle. With focus and direction he set off for Auxerre in France to enter the priesthood and study under the guidance of Saint Germain. For many years Saint Patrick studied and prayed, never forgetting his ultimate purpose.
In 431 A.D, under the recommendation of Saint Germain, Pope St. Celestine I renamed Maewyn Patritius or Patrick in expectancy of him fulfilling his role as the Father of the Irish people- a role given after Pallidius had failed in fear to convert the Tribes of Ireland to Christianity and had abandoned his sacred duty.
Following preparations and further study, Patrick set sail for Ireland and for a renewed battle with the Druid Chieftains and their unrelenting warriors. Choosing to begin his work in the place of his enslavement, Patrick’s way was fraught with hostility and danger.
It was during this period of opposition that Saint Patrick came into his own. Speaking to the Irish in their own tongue, Patrick declared that their faith kept them enslaved under the power of the Druid Chieftains and that believing in God and living a Christian life would set them free.
Called to Tara to meet with the Great Chieftains, along the way Saint Patrick’s Crusade gathered strength in numbers, heightened by the apparent miracles he was performing and through his own charismatic speeches and humble manner.
The Oracles of the Druids had spoken of the messenger of Christ coming to Erin and they were more than prepared for Patrick’s arrival. They had demanded that all fires be extinguished until a new flame announcing Druid victory was lit in the Royal House. The meeting was at Easter, and Patrick set up camp on Slane Hill opposite Tara where he lit the Paschal fire as part of the Easter vigil.
Outraged the Druid Priests cried out that if their own gods did not quench the Holy flame that night they would be doomed for it to burn on Ireland’s shores forever. Many attempts were made by the Pagan’s to douse the fire, but it was all to no avail and Patrick remained unscathed despite the continued assaults on his camp.
Saint Patrick began his procession to Tara, with the Druids and their Magicians using all their power to block his path. So dark was the magic, the sky became covered with black clouds of apocalyptic proportions. Undeterred, the Bishop of Ireland prayed until rays of sunlight broke through and dispersed the clouds.
In a final attempt to retain control, the Arch-Druid Lochru, used his dark magic to rise high into the air. Saint Patrick prayed until the Priest was dashed on the rocks below. Knowing that a great power was in their presence and that their prophecy had come to pass, the High Kings gave their permission for Christianity to be preached to the people of Ireland. It was during his time at Tara that Patrick picked a Shamrock from the ground to use as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.
Saint Patrick began to travel the length and breadth of Ireland, facing resentment, imprisonment and violence every step of the way. Patrick’s reputation and news of his miracles began to spread quickly however, as more and more of the Irish turned their back on Paganism and were instilled with Christian hope and faith.
Having spent much time in Munster, baptising, teaching and founding Churches and schools, Patrick continued on, journeying to the hill now known as Croagh Patrick, a place of Holiness and Pilgrimage. Here he began a retreat of 40 days and nights of abstinence and prayer, all the while resisting temptation from the demons and darkness around him.
Having rid Ireland of Paganism, and having brought hope and peace to the Irish, freeing them of slavery, Saint Patrick was called to his eternal reward at the end of the 5th Century, on 17th March.
What of the snakes you ask? There are many stories and legends, whether true or parables to explain his work who can say? In his own writings “Confessio” and the “Epistola ad Coroticum” no mention is made of this particular miracle.
Most likely the snakes are an analogy for the Paganism that Saint Patrick drove from Ireland’s shores, what is fact and what is legend we will never know for sure. What we do know is that for over 1500 years, a Roman-Briton slave who returned to Irish lands to bring Christianity to the people has become a beacon for celebration, not just in Ireland, but throughout the world.
So on March 17th, raise your glass and remember the man, the myth and the legend, whatever your beliefs and enjoy being Irish, even if it is just for one day!