Despite Ireland’s patron saint being one of the world’s most revered men of faith, surprisingly few people know the whole story of his life, says Nick Benson.
When we think of March, one of the first things that comes to mind is St Patrick, the great ‘Apostle of Ireland’. He is remembered as the leader who fought crime and injustice in this land, not with anger and vengeance, but with love – and led the people to faith in God.
St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries around the world than any other national festival. However, as his feast day on 17th March approaches, some may be surprised to know that St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, wasn’t named Patrick, wasn’t from Ireland and is said to have actually worn the colour blue, not green!
Despite being one of Christianity’s most widely known figures, the truth about St Patrick’s life is little know. He was born sometime around 387AD as Maewyn Succat to a Christian family, though exactly where is a mystery. In his Confessio he says he was born in a settlement called Bannavem Taburniae, but it’s location is lost in time. Some believe it could be Banwen in Neath Port Talbot, Wales, where every year a service is held in his honour, while others say he was born in Kilpatrick, Scotland, or Birdoswald in Cumbria.
One point that is agreed on is that he was not born in Ireland, but was captured by pirates when he was 16, and it was they who took him to the land that would become synonymous with his life.
Today, St Patrick is recognised as a victim of what we now call human trafficking. Issues such as people trafficking, war, famine and displacement of people are not unique to the 21st century, and this is evident from St Patrick’s early life.
He was enslaved and held captive for six years in Ireland, where his life was one of hardship and migration. Many believe his captivity took place on Mount Slemish in County Antrim. However, others claim that it was actually in County Mayo near Killala. During this period St Patrick worked as a shepherd and, lonely and afraid, he turned to God for solace, becoming a devout Christian.
In his Confessio, St Patrick recalled hearing a voice while he slept, which encouraged him to escape and return to his home country.
Upon his return to Britain, St Patrick continued to study Christianity and in his Confessio, he recalled a vision in which a man called Victoricus implored him to return to Ireland as a missionary.
His dream of converting the Irish pagans propelled him to priestly studies in Gaul (now France), and Pope Celestine I consecrated him a bishop and sent him to Ireland.
Still known by his birth name of Maewyn Succat, he changed his name to Patricius, or Patrick, which derives from the Latin term for ‘nobleman’, when he became a priest.
For nearly 30 years he preached tirelessly, made countless converts, founded monasteries and established the primatial see at Armagh. Toward the end of his life he made a 40-day retreat in Mayo that gave rise to the famous ongoing Croagh Patrick pilgrimages.
Early medieval tradition credits him with being the first bishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland and regards him as the founder of Christianity in the country.
Stories of him using the shamrock to explain the Trinity and driving snakes from the island are legend but remain much more widely known than facts such as his birth name.
Although green dominates St Patrick’s Day celebrations today and many images of the saint show him predominantly wearing green, it was actually the colour blue – a shade known as St Patrick’s blue – that was first associated with him. The earliest depictions of St Patrick show him in blue garments and the colour also appears on ancient Irish flags.
Another surprising fact is that, although he is the much-loved patron saint of Ireland, St Patrick was not formally canonised by the Catholic Church in terms of today’s procedure. This was due to St Patrick living prior to the current laws of the Church in these matters, as there was no formal canonisation process in the Church during its first millennium.
Instead, during the early years of the Church, the title saint was bestowed upon martyrs and individuals who were recognised as being exceptionally holy during their lives.
Some have previously pointed out this fact and claimed that it means St Patrick is not officially a saint. However, this is completely untrue. St Patrick is a saint and is venerated as one in the Catholic Church and many other Christian Churches.
His feast day is observed on 17th March, the supposed date of his death and it is celebrated in Ireland and all over the world as both a religious and cultural holiday.
St Patrick’s Breastplate, a popular prayer attributed to the saint, is a shield for Divine Protection and can be called upon today during our great time of need, amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.’
Picture: St Patrick, patron of Ireland, is depicted in a stained-glass window at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in the Forest Hills section of the Queens borough of New York City. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz).