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The Historical Saint Patrick

Or: Would the Real Saint Patrick Please Stand Up?

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A Fitting Tribute - Saint Patrick's Statue at Tara

A Fitting Tribute - Saint Patrick's Statue at Tara

© Bernd Biege 2014

For all the hundreds of words written by and millions of words written about Ireland's patron saint, we have to admit to not knowing a lot about Patrick.

Sure we know a lot of stories connected to Saint Patrick, from his single-handed conversion of the Irish to his forty days and nights fasting on Croagh Patrick, from the paschal fire he lit in defiance of the royal Tara fire ... to him driving the snakes out of Ireland. But most of these stories are either unproven, slightly dubious or simply tall tales made up by Saint Patrick's followers.

And they might even draw on the traditions of two Patricks, with Palladius mixed in ...

Just the Facts ... on and by Saint Patrick

The only undisputed records of Saint Patrick's life are his scarce biographical sketches in the Confessio and the letter to Coroticus' soldiers (whoever they were). Both documents were written by Patrick himself and contain fairly unspectacular details:

  • Patrick was probably born in Britain (more than likely England or Wales, though he may have come from further afield) into a wealthy Christian family with strong church connections;
  • Patrick was abducted by raiders as a young man or boy, taken to Ireland and kept as a servant or slave to herd sheep;
  • Following divine inspiration, maybe a vision, Patrick fled from Ireland, wandered an unspecified desert and finally arrived back in Britain;
  • Rising within the church, Patrick was chosen to convert the Irish and sent back to the island;
  • His rise and mission were not universally welcome, he hints at a "dark secret" rivals knew about;
  • Patrick had a definitely apocalyptic vision of his mission in Ireland.

Saint Patrick's Time and Place

While Patrick himself never provided definite dates or places, the common assumption is that his mission in Ireland started in 432. This particular year might only have been chosen for numerological reasons by later chroniclers and should thus not be seen as definite. In fact, the mission may well have started a few years later, 456 is often mentioned by experts.

We simply have no way to connect Saint Patrick to any definite date, just a general period.

Also bear in mind that Saint Patrick's was not the first mission to Ireland - chroniclers relate that a certain Palladius was already sent there in 431. While we know even less about Palladius than we do about Patrick, the latter's biographers seem to agree that the earlier mission was a failure. Again, this might just have been a PR-exercise on behalf of Saint Patrick.

Saint Patrick - Harbinger of the Apocalypse

One point that may need a bit more explanation is Patrick's "apocalyptic vision". In his confessio he repeatedly refers to Ireland as the furthest extreme of the world that he will bring into the arms of the church. This ties in with the popular believe that the Final Judgement would come once all nations accepted Christ - thus implying that the completion of Patrick's mission would bring the End of Days.

Obviously Patrick's geographical knowledge even of the world as it was known in his times was very patchy. He seems to have been totally and genuinely convinced, however, that he was chosen to convert the Irish and thus ring in the end of the world as he knew it.

This, in a nutshell, is the sum total knowledge of Patrick as related by himself. With some additional "facts" supplied by his earliest biographers.

Saint Patrick's Legend Lives

Though Saint Patrick obviously did not bring about the apocalypse, he became a cult figure in Early-Christian Ireland and was soon proclaimed a saint. Note that this was a simple process of acclamation in the early middle ages, not the complicated and long-winded papal process it is today. A saint was somebody who led an exemplary Christian life. But Patrick, at least according to his later biographers, also managed to work some truly stunning miracles.

His main feat seems to have been driving the snakes out of Ireland. The slithering ones had been connected to sin since the Garden of Eden. Zoologists will, however, tell you that there never were any snakes in Ireland anyway. Modern interpretation thus sometimes simply equates "snake" with "sin" and sees Saint Patrick driving sin (or rather Paganism) out of Ireland by bringing Christianity into it.

Patrick's other recorded deeds my be as allegorical as the snake episode. His famous forty days and nights of fasting on Croagh Patrick for instance would not be totally impossible physically. It might, however, be lifted straight from Biblical references. We'll never know for sure. Did Saint Patrick really light a a paschal fire to defy the High King of Tara and his druids? Why not - it would have been easy to do and certainly have helped to raise the missionary's profile. Separating the facts from the fictions in Patrick's biographies is next to impossible.

And bear in mind that there are other royal places in Ireland, plus more kings than you can shake a sceptre at ... so how important would Tara have been?

Saint Patrick and the Shamrock

Finally - why just is Saint Patrick nearly always shown with a shamrock? Apparently he tried to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to some Irish pagans. Who simply could not get their heads around the conflicting messages that there is but one God, but that He is a Trinity at the same time.

So Patrick plucked a shamrock and used this to exemplify the Holy Trinity. "Look, it is made up of three identical yet separate pieces - and those three pieces do not exist in isolation but are one." The Irish got the message and the shamrock became a national symbol.

Just Patrick? Or Saint Patrick?

What's in a name after all? A lot - if you see it from a historical perspective. These days we are used to speak about Saint Patrick, but in his lifetime things would have been different. Patrick himself never claimed any special place, let alone sainthood. The opposite is true - he called himself unworthy, a sinner and uneducated. Just Patrick.

Whether this was "fishing for compliments" or true humility we will simply never know, maybe a mixture of both. Surely Patrick perceived his mission as important, bringing on the Final Judgement after all, but then he saw himself only as an important tool in the hand of God.

At the same time there would have been many people in Ireland going "Yer man Patrick, he's a real saint, y'know?" But only later was Patrick elevated to the status of a fully fledged saint, recognized by his followers and Rome ...

To be absolutely correct, the historical Patrick should maybe just be called Patrick, the man - Saint Patrick then being reserved for the legend. But even some aspects of the historical Patrick as related by the man himself might be just legend. After all, in all humility, he was convinced he was on a mission from God.

And Finally ... Just One Patrick to Convert Them All?

This is one of the historical enigmas surrounding the patron saint of Ireland - he may actually have been more than one man on mission. There is strong evidence that the stories, legends and traditions may originally have been attached to two Patricks, one having been the afore-mentioned Palladius ...

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