ARL Archive

Facts & Legends about St. Patrick

STP2Seeing that it’s Friday, I should be doing a Reference News Roundup (RNR). However, this Friday is St. Patrick’s Day, so I will forego today’s RNR for the chance to dip into some of the religion-oriented books in the ARL collection that too often go untouched.

First among these is the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, which has an entry on St. Patrick that says:

The historical Patrick is much more attractive than the Patrick of legend, the thaumaturge (i.e., miracle worker) who expelled snakes from Ireland or ‘explained’ the Trinity by referencing the shamrock, or accomplished single-handed immense missionary tasks of conversion which actually took many evangelists and several generations to accomplish.

That’s a pretty bold claim, especially since the legends about St. Patrick are so neat. That said, it’s true: Patrick did lead a pretty interesting life, although there seems to be little agreement on the details, including whether or not he was the “only true apostle of Ireland.” According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, the thumbnail sketch of Patrick’s life story goes like this:

Patrick was British by birth, although the precise location of which is not known. He was the son of a town councilor and his grandfather was a priest. At 16 years of age, he was captured by pirates and forced to labor (i.e., as a slavery) as a herder. While in slavery, it is said he learned to pray and soon spent all his time engaged in the practice. At some point he had a dream in which he was told 1) he’d soon return to his homeland, or 2) he’d soon return to his parents (sources differ on this). He later escaped and found his way on a ship headed for the southeast coast of Britain. After various “adventures,” he found his way back to his family, albeit as a changed man. He began to receive training for the priesthood and became quite familiar with the Latin Bible. When his training was complete, he traveled to Rome to be ordained and then went to Ireland, where he succeeded Palladius (the first bishop of the Irish) as bishop. He set up shop in the North, established his see at Armagh, and then a school. Toward the end of his life, Patrick wrote a moving autobiographical account of his youth, conversion, and spiritual development,Confessio, and this book serves as the primary source for what is known about his life.

Of the other religious references in the ARL’s collection that mention St. Patrick, both — the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature  — both tell similar stories about the saint’s life, although both add a good bit more detail to the story.

For example, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church adds that:

1. While a slave, Patrick toiled in an ancient district of Ireland known as Tirawley, in the vicinity of modern Kilala in the north of County Mayo.

2. He made his escape to Britain from a port some 200 miles away from the location of his servitude.

3. His title, “Bishop of Ireland,” was of his own decree and, while evangelizing in Ireland, he spent his time “conciliating local chieftains and educating their sons, ordaining the clergy, and instituting monks and nuns.

4. Patrick’s Confessio may have been written in response to a serious attack on his character and career.

STP1Not to be outdone, the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature fleshes out the story even more, but in some instances, muddies the waters a bit. The book offers so much, in fact, that there is no way I can recapture it all here. Among the highlights are:

1. The dream he had during his time as a slave occurred in his sixth year of servitude and not only told him that he would find his way back to his parents in Britain, but that he would find a vessel on the coast to take him there. When he found it, he was treated harshly and refused passage. In response, he went off to pray and then someone from the ship came looking for him and treated him with kindness.

2. Following his return to his family, there is a “hiatus of unknown length in his life” prior to his studying for the priesthood. It is also not clear where he studied or who he studied with.

3. Patrick had another (second) dream in which a man named Victoricus pleaded with him to come to Ireland, and that’s why he went there.

4. Patrick began his ministry in Ireland in 432 A.D. at the age of about 43 and while his biographers say he had an easy time of converting the Irish to Christianity, but there is evidence that “Patrick and his early converts were persecuted” and that “among the ruling classes and the higher order of Druids” there was opposition to the new creed.

5. St. Patrick died near Armagh on March 17, 455 A.D. at the age of 78. The anniversary of his death has ever been held as a festive day by the Irish, not only on their green isle, but in every other part of the wide world to which wars and oppression have driven them.

As noted above, much of what is known about St. Patrick comes from his autobiography, and the the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature quotes liberally from it, which explains why its entry for St. Patrick is so much longer than the entries for this revered Irish saint that appear in the other two books. Nevertheless, the excerpts make for some interesting reading  and, for a Catholic like me, provide a little inspiration for coping with life’s difficulties.

One excerpt reads:

I was about 16 years old … and was led away into captivity…. My constant business was to keep the flocks; I was frequent in prayers. The love and fear of God more and more inflamed my heart. My faith and spirit were enlarged … and in the woods and on the mountain I remained, and before the light I arose to my prayers, in the snow, in the frost, and in the rain, I experienced no evil at all.

And another reads:

At a certain time they even desired to kill me, but my time had not come. Everything they found with us they seized, and bound myself with fetters; but on the fourteenth day the Lord delivered me, and what was ours they returned.

No wonder Patrick is the patron saint of the Irish.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the ARL!

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