By Dr Patricia Kelly, Senior Lecturer in Catholic Studies at Leeds Trinity University
St Patrick’s Day – 17 March – is marked world-wide by parades, buildings and rivers turning green, and the consumption of vast quantities of Irish stout, soda bread, and ‘bacon & cabbage’. But who was St Patrick, and how did he come to be patron saint of Ireland?
Image credit: Seth Anderson (2012) [https://www.flickr.com/photos/swanksalot/7413961672/]
St Patrick was born around 420CE, in what was then northern Britannia – possibly near Birdoswald fort on Hadrian’s Wall. In his Confessio, or autobiography, he tells us that his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest – Christianity had become the religion of the whole Roman Empire some half-a-century before his birth, in 380. His name – Patricius – tells us that he was Roman, and he refers to himself late in life, as ‘living in exile among non-Roman peoples’ (Letter to Coroticus 1). He was kidnapped at the age of 16 by Irish pirates, and sold into slavery: scholars think he spent much of the next six years in the north-west of Ireland, around modern day Counties Sligo and Mayo. Six years later, the young man managed to escape, returning to his family, and eventually, in his 30s, returning to Ireland to preach the Gospel to these ‘non-Roman’ heathens.
There must have been some knowledge of Christianity in Ireland before Patrick however. We can be confident of this for two reasons. First, there is ample archaeological evidence of contacts between Ireland and the Roman Empire – remains of pottery, wine, olives, and glassware have been found in the south-east of the country, while the second-century map-maker, Ptolomey, described Ireland in surprising, and surprisingly accurate, detail. Second, the fifth-century pope Celestine sent a missionary called Palladius to Ireland in 431 – some time before Patrick went as a slave, let along as a missionary – although later Irish accounts suggest that Palladius wasn’t too successful, and hurried back to his Mediterranean homeland. Of course, these medieval Irish authors may have wanted to promote Patrick, rather than Palladius, as the true ‘apostle of Ireland’, and there is some suggestion that they might have confused stories about the two bishops, whether intentionally or not.
What is certain is that by 600, Patrick is described as ‘the apostle of our land’ and ‘the St Peter of the Irish’ – strong stuff, to be equating him with the ‘first among equals’ of the apostles! He is associated with Armagh, in the north of Ireland, where he died and was buried, and the Archbishop of Armagh remains the ‘Primate’ or ‘senior bishop’ of the Catholic Church in Ireland. He has been the patron saint of Ireland for 14 centuries, which is pretty impressive, especially considering that he didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland (you’ll need to ask a soil scientist for more details).
It seems that St Patrick’s Day parades began in the nineteenth-century United States, when it was much less of a ‘melting-pot’ than we tend to think. Generally immigrant communities kept to themselves and didn’t mix – so Irish Catholics would have had their own areas of the city, their own employers and jobs, and their own churches in which to worship, very different from Polish, Italian, or Spanish Catholics. But they had their feast day, and then their parades, just as the other Catholic communities did, and eventually – probably in the 1950s – this worked its way back to Europe. In Ireland, meanwhile, the day was generally quiet – under British rule it wasn’t a holiday, and after independence, there were few parades aside from military ones. The Irish government initially banned pubs from opening on St Patrick’s day – hence my mother-in-law, who grew up in a pub in County Roscommon in the 1930s and 1940s, remembering that St Patrick’s was one of the three days in the year when the pub was locked shut.
But Patrick can still teach us lessons. He tells us that he focused on converting slaves and women – the dispossessed – although he does admit to bribing the powerful on occasion (necessary to save his life and his mission). He wrote a strongly worded letter to the soldiers of one Coroticus, complaining about their massacre of new converts and their appalling treatment of captives. He was an internationalist, born in Britain, travelling to Gaul, and spending much of his adult life in Ireland. And he lived in a time of chaos and uncertainty – the Roman Empire, which had ruled Britain for four centuries was collapsing, along with law and order, stability, and the social structures he knew – yet he continued the fight for what was right, insisting on the dignity and integrity of all human persons.
So lessons from St Patrick: enjoy your Irish stout, wear your green leprechaun hat, and remember to respect all those around you – especially those working so hard to serve you your pints! Slaínte!
More information about St Patrick, including translations of his writings, may be found at www.confessio.ie, from where the citations from his Confessioand Lettercome.