So Who Was St. Patrick?

History Q & A

Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair are co-authors of The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day (Routledge, 2002).

There has long been dispute between scholars about the life and lore of St Patrick. Twenty years ago, an academic sub-discipline “Patrician Studies” crystallized in the wake of debates among historians and theologians.

We begin with a synopsis of the life of Maewyn Succat, and his transformation into Patricius the cleric. There is spirited debate about basic aspects of Succat's existence. His birthplace was probably Roman Britain -- most likely Wales, but perhaps Scotland or even France -- and his birth date around AD 416, though some writers suggest as early as AD 387. His father was a Roman-Christian civil servant and his grandfather a Catholic priest.

From Patricius's Confessio we are informed retrospectively that he was about sixteen years old when abducted by Irish marauders and enslaved. He worked as a shepherd on the slopes of Slemish (now part of County Antrim), praying to a Christian God while captive in a pagan land. After six years an angel came to him in a dream, prompting him to escape and seek out his homeland.

After traveling more than 200 miles by foot, he was eventually given passage on a boat traveling east across the Irish Sea. His destination was Britain, but he settled soon after in France. There he again received a celestial visitation, this time calling him to return to the land where he had been enslaved, though now with a mission as a priest and convertor. Upon ordination he was given the title Patricius. Whether he traveled to Ireland under the direct order of Pope Celestine or not is still debated.


It is often assumed that Patricius was the first to bring Christianity to Ireland in c. AD 432, but Pope Celestine had already sent Palladius in AD 431, while other priests also appear to have been in Ireland around this time. Of them, we only have documentary evidence for the experiences of Patricius. His life has therefore been of great interest to religious scribes who, subsequently, elevated Patricius to the status of “founding father” of Irish Christianity.

A single figure with historical credentials was attractive as a birth story. However, according to critics, the “historical” Patrick has been misrepresented: instead of the humility and piety evident in the Confessio, biographers have invested him with an imposing presence and mystical powers -- the St Patrick of “legend.” Hagiographers, those who specialize in writing about saints' lives, have gone beyond Patrick the Christian missionary who learned to speak Gaelic and converted many natives, to invent Patrick the ancient superhero -- replete with Christ's staff and the ability to perform miracles. This same Patrick was also said to be fearsome: able to put curses on enemies, turn men into animals, and purge rivers of fish.


Patrick is thought to have died sometime between AD 463 and AD 493, with 17 March the most likely day. Veneration of Patrick gradually assumed the status of a local cult; he was not simply remembered in Saul and Down-patrick, he was worshipped. Around AD 688, the church federation in Armagh engaged a biographer in what now seems a propaganda role: to reposition Armagh as the center of the cult of St Patrick. Muirch, a skilful scribe, not only achieved this, he also “ensured that the cult was elevated to that of a ‘national’ apostle.” Indeed, homage to Patrick as Ireland's saint was apparent in the eighth century AD, when a 'Prayer to Saint Patrick' included lines (composed originally in Gaelic) such as “We invoke holy Patrick, Ireland's chief apostle,” and “We pray to Patrick chief apostle; his judgment hath delivered us in Doom from the malevolence of dark devils.”

At this time Patrick's status of national apostle was made independently of Rome: he was claimed locally as a saint before the practice of canonization was introduced by the Vatican. The cult held that Patrick continued intercession in heaven on behalf of the Irish people. The veneration in which the Irish have held St Patrick is evidenced by the salutation, still common today, “May God, Mary, and Patrick bless you.”


The St Patrick of legend has, according to some scholars, fused more than one person's life into the same story. A theory of two St Patricks has in turn been supplanted by three and even five St Patricks, while some researchers have concluded that “there had never been a Saint Patrick at all.”

Differences between the Patrick of history and legend can also be attributed to political strategies on the part of the churches. In the seventeenth century, for example, the Church of Ireland attempted to trace its local origins to Patrick. The Catholic Church, too, made a concerted effort to link the achievements of Patrick with the sanction of Rome. The Pope's consecration of Patricius as a saint confirmed what Celtic Catholics already accepted, but it re-established the idea of Patrick as a servant of the church of Rome. This initiative was, in part, a matter of Vatican protocol, but the Irishness of Patrick was undiminished even though he was, of course, born elsewhere. There are, nonetheless, those who view St Patrick not as someone who brought a divine light to Ireland, but rather as a colonizing agent for the erosion of pagan customs and belief systems.

Within the Christian calendar, though, Patrick has long been remembered with fondness. This began as early as the ninth century AD with the feast of St Patrick's"falling asleep" -- in other words his passing on 17 March. The Book of Annagh included a note directing all monasteries and churches in Ireland to honor the memory of the saint by"the celebration, during three days and three nights in mid-spring, with every kind of good food except flesh, of the festival of his 'falling asleep.'" This ritual was a religious occasion,"with a lengthy sermon on the saint's glorious deeds as the highlight of each day's celebrations."

By the seventeenth century (and perhaps earlier) the nomenclature of the 17 March anniversary had changed. It was now St Patrick's Day, with continued religious importance but rising secular significance as an occasion for drinking and revelry. It is here, too, that Patrick of ancient legend was revisited annually. Fables about Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes or his use of the shamrock to explain the Trinity, still endure as part of modern St Patrick's Day folklore and custom. Myth is more fun than truth.


This is an excerpt from The Wearing of the Green. It is reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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Nathan Machula - 3/14/2006

If St Patrick was born c. 400 AD, his grandfather could not have been a "Catholic" priest.