St. Patrick – Who Was He? [166]




Everyone has heard of St Patrick and his deeds, but WHO was Patrick, and what did he do?

Surprisingly, very little is known about him.  Essentially, he was a missionary in the early 5th century, or possibly the late 4th. Medieval tradition credits him with being the first in converting the Irish to Christianity, and being the first Bishop of Armagh. (Figure 1).  This is contradicted by evidence of earlier Christian presence.

In his two writings that survive, he notes he was the son of a Roman official, probably in Britain, but possibly Wales or southern Scotland.  His birth name may have been Maewyn Succat – Patrick is an adopted name meaning “Father of the citizens”. He was kidnaped by Irish  raiders and was enslaved for 6 years. On escaping, he studied at Auxerre and Tours, France.  He was ordained a priest in Auxerre. The date 432 AD is often cited, but recent studies seem to favor the period 452 to 480 AD.

He returned to Ireland as a missionary and converted large numbers, mainly in the north and west where many places are lined to his exploits. (Figure 2).  Some of his deeds may be entangled with another missionary, Palladius, who was known as the elder Patrick.  Much of the information about him comes from The Annals of Ireland collected by O’Clery, et al (Figure 3) from earlier documents. He and his followers created many churches and, monasteries. Figure 4 shows Skellig Michael, an island that served as a monastery.   His death, again uncertain, is listed between 457 and 492 AD in various sources.  He was buried in Downpatrick, Co. Down.

There are many legends involving St. Patrick.  Some were creations or distortions by local people and clergy over the past 1400 years.  For example, the use of the”sacred” shamrock to show the Christian “three in one” dates back to at least 726 AD.  The shamrock wasn’t sacred, but it served as a good example.  The shamrock as a symbol of Ireland appeared in thee Taylor forerunners of 1868;   (Figure 5).  St Patrick did an outstanding job in banishing the snakes – considering they weren’t there to begin with.  This is another legend from the 7th or 8th century.  If  “snakes” is a metaphor for the druids, then it makes sense. The only reptiles in Ireland are newts and lizards. (Figure 6).

The “Paschal Fire” that could not be extinguished, was started by Patrick in defiance of King Laoire.  This was a myth created in the 7th century, and is most likely a metaphor for the eternal life of Christianity that cannot be extinguished.  This is shown in the first and second series of definitive stamps on the high values. (Figure 7).  St. Patrick’s bell,  recovered from his grave by St Colum Cille, is in the Irish Museum.  The bell enclosure, or reliquary, made sometme between 1091 – 1105, is shown on the £5 definitive. (Figure 8).

St. Patrick is a symbol of Christianity, and became a symbol of Irish national identity.  He is a patriotic symbol along with the color green and the shamrock.  He was a great missionary and changed the course of the Irish nation. His conversions and lasting impression contributed greatly to Catholic Ireland.  This identity stayed with the Irish people into the New World and the present day as seen on a stamp depicting the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Figure 9).

Wikipedia, Accessed 10 June 2019.