The historical Patrick is much
more attractive than the Patrick of legend. It is
unclear exactly where Patricius Magonus Sucatus
(Patrick) was born--somewhere in the west between the
mouth of the Severn and the Clyde--but this most popular
Irish saint was probably born in Scotland of British
origin, perhaps in a village called Bannavem
Taberniae. (Other possibilities are in Gaul or at
Kilpatrick near Dumbarton, Scotland.) His father,
Calpurnius, was a deacon and a civil official, a town
councillor, and his grandfather was a priest.
About 405AD, when Patrick was in his teens (14-16), he
was captured by Irish raiders and became a slave in
Ireland. There in Ballymena (or Slemish) in Antrim (or
Mayo), Patrick first learned to pray intensely while
tending his master's sheep in contrast with his early
years in Britain when he "knew not the true
God" and did not heed clerical "admonitions
for our salvation." After six years, he was told in
a dream that he should be ready for a courageous effort
that would take him back to his homeland.
He ran away from his owner and travelled 200 miles to
the coast. His initial request for free passage on a
ship was turned down, but he prayed, and the sailors
called him back. The ship on which he escaped was taking
dogs to Gaul (France). At some point he returned to his
family in Britain, then seems to have studied at the
monastery of Lérins on the Côte d'Azur from AD 412 to
He received some kind of training for the priesthood
in either Britain or Gaul, possibly in Auxerre,
including study of the Latin Bible, but his learning was
not of a high standard, and he was to regret this
always. He spent the next 15 years at Auxerre were he
became a disciple of Saint Germanus of Auxerre and was
possibly ordained about 417AD.
The cultus of Patrick began in France, long before
Sucat received the noble title of Patricius, which was
immediately before his departure for Ireland about 431AD.
The center of this cultus is a few miles west of Tours,
on the Loire, around the town of St- Patrice, which is
named after him. The strong, persistent legend is that
Patrick not only spent the twenty years after his escape
from slavery there, but that it was his home. The local
people firmly believe that Patrick was the nephew of
Saint Martin of Tours and that he became a monk in his
uncle's great Marmoutier Abbey.
Patrick's cultus there reverts to the legend of Les
Fleurs de St- Patrice which relates that Patrick was
sent from the abbey to preach the Gospel in the area of
Bréhémont-sur-Loire. He went fishing one day and had a
tremendous catch. The local fishermen were upset and
forced him to flee. He reached a shelter on the north
bank where he slept under a blackthorn bush. When he
awoke the bush was covered with flowers. Because this
was Christmas day, the incident was considered a
miracle, which recurred each Christmas until the bush
was destroyed in World War I. The phenomenon was
evaluated many times and verified by various observers,
including official organizations. His is now the patron
of the fishermen on the Loire and, according to a modern
French scholar, the patron of almost every other
occupation in the neighborhood. There is a grotto
dedicated to him at Marmoutier, which contains a stone
bed, alleged to have been his.
It is said that in visions he heard voices in the
wood of Focault or that he dreamed of Ireland and
determined to return to the land of his slavery as a
missionary. In that dream or vision he heard a cry from
many people together 'come back and walk once more
among us,' and he read a writing in which this cry
was named 'the voice of the Irish.' (When Pope John Paul
II went to Ireland in 1979, among his first words were
that he, too, had heard the 'voice of the
In his Confessio Patrick writes: "It was
not my grace, but God who overcometh in me, so that I
came to the heathen Irish to preach the Gospel . . . to
a people newly come to belief which the Lord took from
the ends of the earth." Saint Germanus consecrated
him bishop about 432AD, and sent him to Ireland to succeed
Saint Palladius, the first bishop, who had died earlier
that year. There was some opposition to Patrick's
appointment, probably from Britain, but Patrick made his
way to Ireland about 435AD.
He set up his see at Armagh and organized the church
into territorial sees, as elsewhere in the West and
East. While Patrick encouraged the Irish to become monks
and nuns, it is not certain that he was a monk himself;
it is even less likely that in his time the monastery
became the principal unit of the Irish Church, although
it was in later periods. The choice of Armagh may have
been determined by the presence of a powerful king.
There Patrick had a school and presumably a small familia
in residence; from this base he made his missionary
journeys. There seems to have been little contact with
the Palladian Christianity of the southeast.
There is no reliable account of his work in Ireland,
where he had been a captive. Legends include the stories
that he drove snakes from Ireland, and that he described
the Trinity by referring to the shamrock, and that he
singlehandedly--an impossible task--converted Ireland.
Nevertheless, Saint Patrick established the Catholic
Church throughout Ireland on lasting foundations: he
travelled throughout the country preaching, teaching,
building churches, opening schools and monasteries,
converting chiefs and bards, and everywhere supporting
his preaching with miracles.
At Tara in Meath he is said to have confronted King
Laoghaire on Easter Eve with the Christian Gospel,
kindled the light of the paschal fire on the hill of
Slane (the fire of Christ never to be extinguished in
Ireland), confounded the Druids into silence, and gained
a hearing for himself as a man of power. He converted
the king's daughters (a tale I've recounted under the
entry for Saints Ethenea and Fidelmia. He threw down the
idol of Crom Cruach in Leitrim. Patrick wrote that he
daily expected to be violently killed or enslaved again.
He gathered many followers, including Saint Benignus,
who would become his successor. That was one of his
chief concerns, as it always is for the missionary
Church: the raising up of native clergy.
He wrote: "It was most needful that we should spread
our nets, so that a great multitude and a throng should
be taken for God. . . . Most needful that everywhere
there should be clergy to baptize and exhort a people
poor and needy, as the Lord in the Gospel warns and
teaches, saying: Go ye therefore now, and teach all
nations. And again: Go ye therefore into the whole world
and preach the Gospel to every creature. And again: This
Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in the whole
world for a testimony to all nations."
In his writings and preaching, Patrick revealed a
scale of values. He was chiefly concerned with
abolishing paganism, idolatry, and sun-worship. He made
no distinction of classes in his preaching and was
himself ready for imprisonment or death for following
Christ. In his use of Scripture and eschatological
expectations, he was typical of the 5th-century bishop.
One of the traits which he retained as an old man was a
consciousness of his being an unlearned exile and former
slave and fugitive, who learned to trust God completely.
There was some contact with the pope. He visited Rome
in AD 442 and 444. As the first real organizer of the Irish
Church, Patrick is called the Apostle of Ireland.
According to the Annals of Ulster, the Cathedral Church
of Armagh was founded in 444, and the see became a center of education and administration. Patrick
organized the Church into territorial sees, raised the
standard of scholarship (encouraging the teaching of
Latin), and worked to bring Ireland into a closer
relationship with the Western Church.
His writings show what solid doctrine he must have
taught his listeners. His Confessio (his
autobiography, perhaps written as an apology against his
detractors), the Lorica (or Breastplate),
and the 'Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,'
protesting British slave trading and the slaughter of a
group of Irish Christians by Coroticus's raiding
Christian Welshmen, are the first surely identified
literature of the British or Celtic Church.
What stands out in his writings is Patrick's sense of
being called by God to the work he had undertaken, and
his determination and modesty in carrying it out:
"I, Patrick, a sinner, am the most ignorant and of least
account among the faithful, despised by many. . . . I
owe it to God's grace that so many people should through
me be born again to him."
Towards the end of his life, Patrick made that
'retreat' of forty days on Cruachan Aigli in Mayo from
which the age-long Croagh Patrick pilgrimage derives.
Patrick may have died at Saul on Strangford Lough,
Downpatrick, where he had built his first church.
Glastonbury claims his alleged relics. The National
Museum at Dublin has his bell and tooth, presumably from
the shrine at Downpatrick, where he was originally
entombed with Saints Brigid and Columba.
The high veneration in which the Irish hold Patrick
is evidenced by the common salutation, "May God,
Mary, and Patrick bless you." His name occurs
widely in prayers and blessings throughout Ireland.
Among the oldest devotions of Ireland is the prayer used
by travellers invoking Patrick's protection, An
Mhairbhne Phaidriac or The Elegy of Patrick.
He is alleged to have promised prosperity to those who
seek his intercession on his feast day, which marks the
end of winter. A particularly lovely legend is that the
Peace of Christ will reign over all Ireland when the
Palm and the Shamrock meet, which means when St.
Patrick's Day fall on Passion Sunday.
Most unusual is Well of Saint Patrick at Orvieto,
Italy, which was built at the order of Pope Clement VII
in 1537AD to provide water for the city during its
periodic sieges. The connection with Saint Patrick comes
from the fact that the project was completed and
dedicated by a member of the Sangallo family, a name
derived from the Irish Saint Gall. A common Italian
proverb refers to this exceptionally deep (248 steps to
the surface) well: liberal spenders are said to have
pockets as deep as the Well of Patrick (Attwater,
Benedictines, Bentley, Bieler, Bury, Delaney,
Encyclopedia, Farmer, MacNeill, Montague, White).
We are told that often Patrick baptized hundreds on a
single day. He would come to a place, a crowd would
gather, and when he told them about the true God, the
people would cry out from all sides that they wanted to
become Christians. Then they would move to the nearest
water to be baptized.
On such a day Aengus, a prince of Munster, was
baptized. When Patrick had finished preaching, Aengus
was longing with all his heart to become a Christian.
The crowd surrounded the two because Aengus was such an
important person. Patrick got out his book and began to
look for the place of the baptismal rite but his crozier
got in the way.
As you know, the bishop's crozier often has a spike
at the bottom end, probably to allow the bishop to set
it into the ground to free his hands. So, when Patrick
fumbled searching for the right spot in the book so that
he could baptize Aengus, he absent-mindedly stuck his
crosier into the ground just beside him--and
accidentally through the foot of poor Aengus!
Patrick, concentrating on the sacrament, never
noticed what he had done and proceeded with the baptism.
The prince never cried out, nor moaned; he simply went
very white. Patrick poured water over his bowed head at
the simple words of the rite. Then it was completed.
Aengus was a Christian. Patrick turned to take up his
crozier and was horrified to find that he had driven it
through the prince's foot!
"But why didn't you say something? This is
terrible. Your foot is bleeding and you'll be lame. . .
." Poor Patrick was very unhappy to have hurt
Then Aengus said in a low voice that he thought
having a spike driven through his foot was part of the
ceremony. He added something that must have brought joy
to the whole court of heaven and blessings on Ireland:
"Christ," he said slowly, "shed His
blood for me, and I am glad to suffer a little pain at
baptism to be like Our Lord" (Curtayne).
In art, Saint Patrick is represented as a bishop
driving snakes before him or trampling upon them. At
times he may be shown (1) preaching with a serpent
around the foot of his pastoral staff; (2) holding a
shamrock; (3) with a fire before him; or (4) with a pen
and book, devils at his feet, and seraphim above him
(Roeder, White). He is patron of Nigeria (which
was evangelized primarily by Irish clergy) and of
Ireland and especially venerated at Lérins (Roeder,