A Charmed Beginning
In the fourth century A.D., Britain, (called Albion by the ancients) had been part of the Roman Empire for more than three hundred years. The reach of the Romans was slow in coming, but by this time the native British people were not an oppressed people yearning for freedom and Patrick’s male elders would have taken pride in calling themselves Romanus.
In fact, Patrick was not born in Ireland, but in Britain, and was part of a wealthy family of respectable landowners. His grandfather was a priest, and his father, Calpornius was both a Christian deacon, an estate-owner, and a Roman Decurion, an important local magistrate.
Patrick spent his youth in either a house in town or at their villa in Bannaventa Berniae, which is not found on any map that survives today, but scholars believe it was on the west coast of Britain, near the sea. His two-story coastal home was most likely behind a wall with attached farm buildings, a courtyard, assorted farm animals and a building with sleeping quarters for the domestic and farm servants, all surrounded by green fields and grazing sheep.
A boy of higher class standing, Patrick would have grown up watching the birthing of farm animals – milk cows, spring lambs, fowl – and the harvesting of wheat, but the work on the estate was only for the slaves. Slavery was omnipresent during those times – a way of life for perhaps a quarter of the population. Entry into the life of a slave was instituted either through war, being born into slavery, having been kidnapped, or agreeing to an indentured pact to settle a debt.
Mysterious Boy, Patrick
Patrick would have had a formal education based on the Roman model – studying Latin, writing and simple mathematics. He was probably baptized as an infant and, being raised in a religious household, he would have known the Bible stories. Yet in his young heart and mind, he was not enamored with religion.
There are many details of Patrick’s life that remain unknown, even though as an adult he left behind two important letters – Confession and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. These writings give us a glimpse into his mind and ideals, and he says that as a teenager he committed a sin so horrible that it would haunt him the rest of his life. Early Christian writers list horrendous transgressions as sexual immorality, idolatry or murder. We never learn what Patrick’s great sin was, but he never tries to deny or diminish his feelings of guilt.
His Life Takes a Turn
At age 16, Patrick was stolen from his parent’s home by professional slave raiders who viewed their captives as merchandise. His parents were absent at the time but the slave traders would have taken most of the workers, killing the elderly and the children, then spiriting away the healthy young women and men, Patrick among them.
Heavy chains would have fastened them together so they could be led away and taken to a ship bound for Ireland and quickly sold.
A Cruel World
Slaves were on the bottom rung of the social scale and treated as simple property. They were rarely freed and could not buy their way out of captivity as they might have under the Roman Empire. Patrick was put on an Irish farm and served for six years as a sheep-tender. Irish law at the time implied that freeing a slave threatened the natural order of things and could result in misfortune, crop failure or milk-less cows.
Religion for the pagan Irish was instituted by sacrifice. For example, if you gave up a sheep to the god Mars, in return you received good health or a significant crop yield. Superstitions and foreign tribal customs meant that no one prayed constantly. But that’s what Patrick started to do.
While he tended the sheep he began to remember biblical stories, prayers and verses from childhood. Other members of this new foreign household must have thought him odd. Yet he observed the culture, learned many languages from the variety of slaves he met, prayed often and even took up fasting. He did this for six years.
Patrick’s devotion to God meant his world of misery started to diminish. One night, as he lay sleeping, Patrick heard a voice speaking to him in a dream. The voice told him he would be going home. The next night, another dream came to him again: “Behold, your ship is ready."
Patrick thought about his situation and believed that God had given him a direct order. Luckily it was summer and he did escape; his letters tell us he walked twenty days to cross Ireland, a distance of about 150 miles.
Reuniting and the Mission
Patrick was reunited with his family and they were happy to have him home. His father must have felt his legacy would now be fulfilled – of having his son take over for him. But Patrick had other dreams and visions, and committed himself to returning to Ireland to teach Christianity. It was his calling.
He spread the gospel as a kind of missionary, going to places that had never been visited, and he converted many people. Despite threats to his life and mission, and accusations from his own clergy, he was made a bishop.
A Distorted History
There are many myths surrounding this patron saint’s abilities, probably written by Greek and Roman writers and monks, hoping to flesh out his life and support it with Irish traditions.
Myth: Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. In fact, the Roman author Solinus wrote a kind of tabloid in the year 200, many years before Patrick, and he recommended using imported Irish dirt as an insecticide. He also includes a note saying that there are no snakes in Ireland.
Myth: St. Patrick used the clover as a tool to illustrate the Holy Trinity. No one really knows if this is true or not. The shamrock is associated with Ireland, but the idea of the symbol in connection with St. Patrick comes from stories about him trying to convert a tribal king, and he most likely did not need an illustration.
Myth: Eating corned beef and cabbage is an ancient Irish tradition. In fact, it’s believed that this “tradition" was instituted by New York bars and restaurants in the 20th century when they gave the construction workers a free meal if they bought beers and whiskey.
St. Patrick’s Day takes place each year on March 17, the traditional religious feast day of the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in America was in 1762. Now a long, time-honored tradition, the parade in New York City has about 150,000 walking participants, marching up 5th Avenue from 44th Street to 86th Street, the world’s longest parade. The world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade is held in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Just remember, however you celebrate, that Patrick’s ordeal turned him into a true believer, and, shorn of legend, he helped to change Ireland’s religious history and culture by spreading Christianity. He didn’t convert everyone because the Celtic gods, Druids, and other spiritual practices continued after his death, but the legends are an important testimony to the life of Patrick and the endurance of faith.
- “Roman Timeline 4th Century AD,” UNRV.com, http://www.unrv.com/empire/timeline-4th-century.php
- Freeman, Philip. St. Patrick of Ireland. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
- Slemish, mountain in County Antrim by Man vyi
- Stained glass window depicting St. Patrick by Andreas F. Borchert under CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
This post is part of the series: Curious Customs: Stories Behind Popular Holidays
- The History of Valentine's Day
- The Origin of Presidents' Day: Who Are We Celebrating?
- Who Was St. Patrick?
- Origin of April Fool's Day
- The Science, History and Culture Behind the Spring Equinox
- Curious Customs: Stories Behind Popular Holidays—Passover Seder
- Curious Customs & Stories Behind Mother's Day
- History & Origins of Labor Day
- The Origins of Common Good Luck Traditions
- Three Superstitions and Their Origins
- The History of the Olympic Games
- What is All Hallows Eve? The Customs and Origins of Halloween
- The Origins of Thanksgiving: The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth