March 2014 - St. Patrick

More than an excuse for March 17 parades and drinking parties

By Patricia Zapor

 St. Patrick mosaic
Mosaic at St. Patrick Church, Seattle


Let’s clear up a few things about St. Patrick. First, the patron saint of Ireland wasn’t Irish. His ethnic background was probably Celtic, like the people of Ireland, but he was the son of a landowning British deacon. Patrick originally got to Ireland as a kidnapped teenage slave, in fact. After escaping, he returned years later as a bishop.

Then there’s that “drove the snakes from Ireland” legend.

“There weren’t any snakes there before he arrived,” explained Christopher Snyder, a history professor at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., and an authority on St. Patrick. Scientific reports from the third century — more than 100 years before Patrick lived — reported an absence of snakes on the island. Most likely, the legend that St. Patrick chased the snakes from Ireland was an allegory for his success in converting people to Christianity from the pagan druid beliefs, Snyder said.

There also is no proof that St. Patrick ever taught about the Trinity using a shamrock, according to Snyder. The legend may well be true, but since the church’s history in Ireland at that time was largely handed down by oral tradition, there’s no way of knowing for sure, he said.

Two documents known to have been written by St. Patrick — his “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus” and “Confessions” — account for most of what historians know about the saint. But because Patrick only began to become famous 150 to 200 years after his death, the details of his life are unclear. Snyder said by the time word of Patrick’s success in evangelizing Ireland became well-known, his life story was as much legend as fact. Tales abound of dramatic battles with wizards and druids, of rainfalls of fire and of other outrageous events.

But some of the accomplishments of St. Patrick are clear, Snyder said. First, his monklike simple existence was an inspiration to followers, including several of Ireland’s home-grown saints. St. Patrick’s practice of fasting and praying to this day inspires thousands of pilgrims to climb up a mountain in Connaught each July. Croagh Patrick, named for the saint, is a traditional pilgrimage site, with many people making the trek barefoot. 

Catholic News Service