Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA

Although the name of Patrick’s hometown was lost or miscopied, we know it was a coastal town in Britain which had been part of the Roman Empire for three hundred years before Patrick’s birth. He and the other nobility were proud to be Roman. St. Patrick of Ireland was born some time around 390 A.D. in Britain when it was a part of the vast Roman Empire. He died in Ireland probably around 460 A.D. Although there is no historic record of his death date or burial site, the feast day of St. Patrick is celebrated on March 17 in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican (including Episcopal) and Lutheran Churches. Additionally, St. Patrick’s Day is steeped in legend and is a secular celebration of all things Irish especially in the United States.

The legends come from hagiographies or saint biographies passed down through the ages written about St. Patrick, not with the goal of historical accuracy, but as a spiritual guide in the form of Celtic myths used to teach the Irish Celts about God by using their own language and culture. Patrick (Padraic in Irish) excelled in this style of teaching and converting. Patrick wrote two letters that survived as copies of copies for a millennium and a half — the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus and Confession.

Patrick was born into the landowning aristocracy of Roman Britain. In fact his name in Latin, Patricius, was the name of the ruling group of Rome from its inception.

His grandfather, Potitus, was a priest who lived during the reign of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor, as well as during the lifetime of St. Nicholas of Myra in the East. Priests were allowed to marry in early Christianity before the separation of churches. Potitus most likely became a priest as a political move up in the social hierarchy.

Patrick’s father, Calpornius, took holy orders as a deacon to obtain a tax exemption available to wealthy Romans. He was also a Decurion or city councilor who collected imperial taxes. Decurions had a special social ranking and Patrick was expected to inherit the role.

Three hundred years earlier, the initial Roman invaders defeated the British tribes and continued to suppress violent clashes between tribes by incorporating them into Roman society. But Roman British towns still had to guard against raids from nearby countries. Their cities were behind tall walls and there were Roman forts along the coasts. Many families had country villas and farms outside the city walls that were not well protected.

As a member of the upper class and in order to speak with Roman soldiers and officials, Patrick spoke Latin and studied it in school. He also spoke British, which at the time was a “Celtic tongue” closely related to Gaul and Irish. British was widely spoken and most people in Roman Britain were bilingual. Patrick would have been exposed to the Irish language either from slaves working on his family’s villa or from the groups of Irish invited by the Romans to settle coastal towns and help defend against Irish invaders.

Patrick attended an elementary school from the age of 7 to 12. He was probably taught by an ex-slave and learned to read and write Latin along with basic math skills on a wax tablet with a stylus. At age 12, the students moved on to the study and recitation of the Latin language and poetry.

The third stage of education from age 15 to 20 focused on public speaking and the study of literature and theology.

Religious studies took place at home and at the local church. However, Patrick rebelled against his parents, rolled his eyes at the priests behind their backs, and considered himself an atheist from childhood.

At around 15, Patrick committed a sin for which he would feel guilty well into adulthood. Although there is no evidence, most historians believe the sin to have been of a sexual nature as opposed to murder or theft.

Later that same year, Irish raiders attacked Patrick one night as he slept upstairs at the family villa while his parents remained in town. The raiders kidnapped Patrick as well as his slaves and people in the neighboring villas. They were herded along the nighttime road to a ship. Patrick could only watch as many of his neighbors and slaves were murdered. He was stowed on the ship along with the wailing wives, mothers, and other teenagers.

(Slavery was quite common throughout the Roman Empire and surrounding countries. Within the empire, people sold themselves or their children into slavery due to famine or debt. People were also captured when their lands were conquered or kidnapped by border raiders. As the slaves were led away, the “valuable” ones — women, or older children, stood powerless as the young children, older people and any man who’d likely cause trouble were killed outright.

Over time, many of the slaves adapted to their life, they were fed and treated well. They raised the children of their masters and took care of their homes and farms. They were considered property by their masters, valuable property, but property nonetheless. Eventually, some purchased their freedom, but they could not raise their social standing.)

Upon their arrival in Ireland, Patrick was sold to a farmer who made him tend sheep. Patrick had been a nobleman’s son and was unaccustomed to hard labor, harsh weather conditions, and sleeping in the barn with other slaves. Although he was probably well fed and cared for at least by the other slaves, Patrick talked of this period as a time of punishment. It was a time of great suffering in which he missed his homeland and family and endured the hardships of a shepherd’s life in Northern Ireland. He learned the language, took care of the sheep, survived, and lamented the loss of his home. It was during this time that Patrick repented and turned toward God as he had nowhere else to turn:

It was here in Ireland that God first opened my heart, so that – even though it was a late start – I became aware of my failings and began to turn with my whole heart to the Lord my God. For he looked down on my miserable condition and had compassion for me, young and foolish as I was. He cared for me before I even knew who he was, before I could tell the difference between right and wrong. He protected me and loved me even as a father does his own child. Confession

Patrick worked well and caused no trouble for his master. During his six years of captivity, he grew to manhood and began to fast and pray almost continually:

One night while I was sleeping, I heard a voice saying to me: “You have fasted well—soon you will be going home.” A short time after that I heard the voice again: “Behold, your ship is ready.” Confession

Before hearing that voice, he never would have attempted to escape. Anyone would turn him in for the reward as he was a valuable slave and home was far away. Historians believe that he was located in the northwest of Ireland. Because the interior of Ireland was so boggy, he traveled along the coast for 200 hundred miles until he reached a port in the south. When he finally arrived on the outskirts of the port town, he did indeed see a ship in the harbor. He hid in the marsh until they were just about to set sail, then approached the captain and asked for a ride. The captain replied with an angry no. But as Patrick prayed and walked back to his hiding place, one of the sailors called him back and said that they would take him. They wanted him to demonstrate his loyalty to them according to their pagan custom of sucking on their breasts as if he were their child. He refused. They shrugged and said he could stay aboard anyway. He hoped they’d eventually become Christians.

After three days of sailing across the Irish Sea, the ship landed in an uninhabited part of Britain and they walked for about two weeks. At a point when they were completely out of food, the captain demanded that Patrick and his God provide them with dinner. A short time later, they came upon a large herd of pigs and wild honey. They had a great feast. Patrick refused to eat the honey because the others dedicated it as a sacrifice to their gods.

That same night as I lay sleeping, I was attacked by Satan—an event I will remember for the rest of my days. He fell on me just like a huge rock so that I couldn’t move my arms or legs. Somehow it came to me at that moment, even in my ignorance, to call on the prophet Elijah for help. And as the rays of the sun touched my body, immediately all the weight and pain were lifted away. I believe that it was Christ the Lord who rescued me that night and that it was his spirit which cried out for my sake. Confession

Patrick made it clear that he called out to Elijah, Helias in Latin, not to the sun Helios in Latin. Though the sun’s rays appeared to save him, it was Christ in his voice and Christ in the sunshine who saved him. Not Helios the Roman/Greek sun god:

For the sun that we see with our eyes rises every day by the will of God, but it is not divine nor will its light remain. Everyone who worships the sun will face serious punishment someday, but we who believe in and follow Christ the true son will never really die. We will become forever as Christ has been always—ruling with God the all-powerful Father and the Holy Spirit now and forever—Amen. Confession

This reminds me of St. Francis of Assisi and his recognition of God in everything.  It’s also why St. Patrick’s Celtic cross is represented as the cross before the sun:

Patrick wandered with the sailors for two more weeks until they came across people. From there he made his way home to great rejoicing among his family and friends who’d thought they’d never see him again. He was very happy to be home. Yet, he realized that he had grown more than just physically while a slave in Ireland for six years:

God used the time to shape and mold me into something better. He made me into what I am now—someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care about others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself. Confession

Soon after his homecoming, he began having dreams or visions in which the Irish people called him back:

But one night while I was at home I saw a vision while sleeping—it was a man named Victoricus, coming to me as if he were arriving from Ireland. With him he brought a huge number of letters. He gave me one of them, and I saw that the first words were “The Voice of the Irish.” When I began to read this letter, all of a sudden I heard the voices of those Irish who live near the woods of Foclut near the Western Sea. They called out to me with a single voice: “We beg you, holy boy, come here and walk among us!” I felt my heart breaking and was not able to read any more—and so I woke up. Confession

How could he go back to Ireland as an escaped slave? How could he tell his family that he was going back? Perhaps his father said, You can study and become a priest. You can serve here at home and carry on with your political career and run the family business. Don’t go back to those miserable people from whom you barely escaped with your life.

Patrick couldn’t imagine how he’d actually be able to go back to Ireland. Until in another dream he heard, “The one who gave you your spirit; it is he who speaks in you.” Confession

Patrick realized that God would be in him and with him every step of the way back to Ireland.

And then we have the missing years. Patrick didn’t explain in his letter how long it took him to get back to Ireland. He left it out as not important, or something the leaders in the Roman British church would already know. So, we are left to wonder how long he studied and prepared before he returned to Ireland. We don’t even know where he studied. We do know, however, that he still felt a great deal of guilt about the crime he committed as a teenager:

At that time, because I was so troubled in my spirit, I let slip to my best friend something that I had done one day in my youth –not even a day but in an hour—because I was not yet then strong in my faith. Confession

Historians believe he probably studied at his home church and became a deacon. Perhaps he studied next to be a priest, or more likely, as was common in early Christianity, he was chosen out of a group of deacons. Chosen to become the next Bishop of Ireland—to spread the word of God, convert and baptize people, build churches, and train Irish priests.

Remember that at the time Ireland was not completely pagan. One of the Christian slave groups wrote a letter to Pope Celestine requesting a bishop and he sent them Bishop Palladius in 431 A. D. According to historical records and lack thereof, Palladius didn’t last very long as the first Irish Bishop. Either he died or returned home within a year. Or he was a successful spreader of God’s word but was lost in history as St. Patrick’s legacy grew. We’ll probably never know.

At some point during Patrick’s missing years, in 420 A.D., Rome was sacked by raiding Visigoths. However, Roman-style rule continued in Britain for many years. Yet, in time, the mercenary soldiers began to leave for more lucrative wages. Britain was left somewhat defenseless so Anglos and Saxon settlers started moving in. Local tyrants took over protecting the populace from invaders but were generally cruel and selfish.

Meanwhile, Patrick returned to Ireland and began to spread the Christian faith:

There is no other God—there never was and there never will be. God our father was not born nor did he have any beginning. God himself is the beginning of all things, the very one who holds all things together, as we have been taught.

And we proclaim that Jesus Christ is his son, who has been with God in spirit always, from the beginning of time and before the creation of the world—though in a way we cannot put into words. Through him everything in the universe was created, both what we can see and what is invisible. He was born as a human being and he conquered death, rising into the heavens to be with God. And God gave to him power greater than any creature of the heavens or earth or under the earth, so that someday everyone will declare that Jesus Christ is Lord and God. We believe in him and we wait for him to return very soon. He will be the judge of the living and the dead, rewarding every person according to their actions.

And God has generously poured out on us his Holy Spirit as a gift and a token of immortality. This Spirit makes all faithful believers into children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

This we proclaim. We worship God in three parts, by the sacred name of the Trinity. Confession

And here’s where we get the symbol of the shamrock to represent the Holy Trinity.

The shamrock or seamroy was a sacred plant representing spring for the Celts. It’s possible that when Patrick preached, he used the shamrock as a way to explain the holy trinity, but there’s no historic proof. The shamrock became a symbol of Irish pride and independence in the 17th century and remains a symbol of Ireland and St. Patrick.

The above statement of faith, originally written by Patrick in his own schoolboy Latin words is very similar to the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed. We can also see that Patrick, like many early Christians, believed that Jesus would return very soon and take all the true believers with him to Heaven. Patrick believed that it was his duty to convert as many people as possible so that they would be able to join Jesus. He felt called by the Irish people and by God to spread the word as far northwest as possible. In fact, he believed that Northern Ireland was the farthest northwest one could travel from the Holy Land. He called it the Ends of the Earth.

Now the Celtic people of Ireland were made up of clans ruled by kings. A clan was an extended family and included all slaves. Each clan’s kingdom was large enough to be self sustaining, and the citizens were not allowed to travel outside their own clan’s territory. Only the kings and king’s men were allowed to travel from one kingdom to another on business with other kings.

In this culture, free women could own land and divorce a husband for a variety of reasons. She could also rule a kingdom as queen if her husband died. Marriages took place between clans as a way to increase the size of each kingdom.

I would say that the Celtic culture is pretty well represented in the movie BRAVE. The daughter is expected to choose a husband from a select group of sons from other clans. She rebels and disrespects her mother, which, of course, leads to her mother being turned into a bear giving the daughter only three days to solve the problem or her mum would be a bear forever.

Okay, the bit about the bear, not so much real. But people transforming into animals is definitely a large part of Celtic mythology. Celts also believed in multiple gods of nature. Their priests were called druids and were believed to have magical and soothsaying powers. Druids passed down their teachings orally and left no written record. Druids were associated with the symbol of the snake and usually had snake tattoos.

Archaeological evidence shows that Ireland never had any snakes. So St. Patrick didn’t actually rid Ireland of any snakes according to the legend. But that’s okay, he rid the country of the druids who are symbolically represented by snakes. Right? Again, not so much. Patrick didn’t stand up and in one swift movement kick all the druids out of the Ireland. Patrick didn’t work that way at all.

Patrick was a gentle soul with a powerful message. The Celts listened to him because his God was just as good as any of their other gods and room for all. One person at a time, they began to understand that there was only one God made up of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Over time, the druids either converted to Christianity, some of whom eventually became priests and helped spread the Word, or they simply faded away as less and less people sought their services.

Patrick needed to travel from kingdom to kingdom so that he could preach to the slave women who called for him. They were already Christian before they were abducted and became slaves. Also, other slaves became Christians as they focused on their reward in Heaven after their harsh life on Earth as a slave. Their owners didn’t mind their worship because one of Christianity’s messages was to work hard and honor your master.

In order to gain permission and protection to travel from kingdom to kingdom, Patrick met with the kings and presented them with gifts. They in turn would provide their sons as escorts from kingdom to kingdom and from clan to clan.

Patrick moved slowly. Services were conducted in wooden buildings. He either wore plain clothing or white clothing like the druids. His sermons were in Irish and his prayers and blessings were in Latin. His work took a long time; some of the infants he baptized grew up to become priests who helped him spread the Word.

Patrick was respectful of the Celts and their culture and beliefs. He taught the Word by transferring aspects of their pagan beliefs into Christianity. For example, St. Brigid of Kildare was named after a Celtic god called Brigid. Along with Patrick, she is honored as a Patron Saint of Ireland.

Patrick focused on those people on the outside of society. Female slaves had it the worst because even though they were fed well and sometimes treated as part of the family, they were always considered possessions with no rights of their own. Therefore, they were unable to protect themselves from the sexual crimes of their masters. This was the main reason that Patrick never wanted to return home again to Britain. He felt that the Christian slave women of Ireland needed him to protect them from their masters with his words and bribes.

The Word spread slowly, but it did indeed spread. Husbands converted, children were baptized. Free women of upper social class began to dedicate themselves as Virgins for Christ. Despite the outcry from their families, they cloistered themselves together, did good works according to Patrick’s teachings of Christ, and became the first Irish nuns. Some of the men became monks, while others became priests and helped Patrick establish churches throughout the land.

Decades passed. During that time of slow and careful spreading of Christianity in Ireland by Patrick and his priests and other Christians, the power of the local tyrants in Britain also grew. A terrible event happened one Easter.

Patrick, well respected and successful in his mission of spreading the Word, had a particularly busy Easter. A large clan including several extended families converted all at the same time, requiring instruction, baptisms, other special religious services and happy celebrations. Patrick was exhausted yet fulfilled after such a good Easter. He learned the next morning that as these new Christians traveled home, they were attacked by soldiers of a British tyrant called Coroticus.

As had happened to Patrick so many years ago, they abducted only those people who would make good slaves and slaughtered the rest before they sailed back to Britain.

Patrick was filled with grief and fury. Desperate to obtain the release of the survivors before they were sold and scattered, he wrote a letter addressed to The Soldiers of Coroticus. He sent copies to everyone he could think of in Britain as he wanted to publicly shame Coroticus into releasing the survivors. That Coroticus considered himself a Christian made it all the more worse.

With my own hands I write this letter—given to my messenger, carried on its way, and handed over to you, the soldiers of Coroticus. Notice I don’t call you “my fellow Romans”—no, your crimes have made you citizens of Hell! Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus

Click the link to read the rest of the letter, a powerful and scathing condemnation. Patrick is clear that their only saving grace is to repent and release the survivors.

History doesn’t record if he was successful and if the captives were returned to their homes in Ireland. But, history does record that his British church leaders and other bishops weren’t too happy about his daring to write a letter directly to Coroticus. They believed that he should have followed proper protocol and written to Coroticus’s bishop and allowed him to communicate with Coroticus. (Of course, Patrick knew there wasn’t enough time to do that before the captives would be sold and scattered.)

The British bishops gathered and planned to remove Patrick from his post in Ireland based on the crime he committed in his youth. Apparently, the friend who had heard Patrick’s confession with understanding and absolution had since become a bishop. For whatever reason, he betrayed Patrick’s trust all those years later. This caused Patrick to write his Confession in defense of himself and his spiritual works in Ireland. There is no record of whether or not he reported to the British church leaders to be stripped of his title and removed from his duties in Ireland. Historians suspect after sending off his Confession, he simply stayed in Ireland and continued his good works.

And so this biography of St. Patrick has come full circle, except to repeat that there is no record of his death date. It seems likely that Patrick died in obscurity somewhere in Ireland just as he wanted. The Christian seeds he planted grew and spread for two hundred years until Ireland became a completely Christian nation.

He was named a saint at some point and incorporated into the Celtic mythical style of story telling which is why he is remembered as such a strong man of God battling it out with snakes and pagan druids.

St. Patrick was a fallible human being, won over by the simple love of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—a love that he longed to feed to the people of Ireland.

St. Patrick leaves behind a prayer that, although written about 100 years after his death, is attributed to him and sounds like a prayer he would have taught his Christians. It’s called “St. Patrick’s Breast Plate Prayer.”

For More Info:

St. Patrick’s Day Symbols
St. Patrick Biography Video

Many hundreds of years later, the people of Ireland were faced with a great famine and vast hunger. The Irish Potato Famine began in 1845 and was a terrible time in Ireland’s history. Dependence on one crop that failed due to blight and lack of support from British landowners of the Gentry class in Ireland caused the death of many thousands of people. Many more thousands left Ireland and immigrated to Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.

It wasn’t easy for the thousands of new immigrants to America. They were treated badly by Americans probably for the same reason some people treat modern-day immigrants badly today — competition for jobs; “take over” of a town, city or neighborhood; or simply because of their foreign ways and beliefs. But America is a land of opportunity, and the Irish found their way out of the ghettos and into political office.

Eventually, as a group, they thrived socially and financially. Yet, all these generations later, many yearn for the comforting food of their ancestral homeland.

Yeah, it’s not corned beef and cabbage. Sorry. The traditional Irish meal served on the feast day of St. Patrick is cabbage served with Irish bacon which is very expensive in the United States. In the early 1900’s, Irish Americans learned about a cheaper meat called corned beef from their Jewish neighbors. With corned beef, they created the traditional Irish American St. Patrick’s Day meal. A good recipe can be found here.

For a simple Irish comfort food recipe, I sought out a first generation Irish American. My friend Karen’s husband, Paddy, was born in Ireland at 11:55 p.m. on March 16. Despite shouts of “HOLD ON, TUDDIE! HOLD ON,” his mother was unable to stall the birth of such a spirited boy. They named him Patrick anyway.

I never met Paddy and alas, he died suddenly several years ago. May he rest in peace. But he left behind wonderful stories that make me laugh to this day. My favorite story involves a bit of cussing, so this one’ll have to do instead:

One day when Paddy finished vacuuming the hallway he called, “Karenluv, can ye plug it out?”

Karen said, “You mean unplug it, right?”

He stared at her quizzically and said “Noo. You plug it in and you plug it out. What are you on about?”

She stood there smiling at him with a bag of potatoes in her hand.

“Yer such a darlin’! Yer goin’ on and makin’ me soup? Remember, I gotta pick oot the spuds meself.”


5 medium potatoes, sliced (about 5 cups)

1 medium onion, sliced

About 2 cups chicken broth

About 2 cups milk

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

Place potatoes, onion, salt, and chicken broth in a covered pot. Place over high heat until boiling. Reduce to simmer for 10 minutes or until potatoes are tender.

Mash potatoes somewhat with a potato masher. Add butter and milk.

Reheat to scalding, remove from heat, and serve in bowls with a pat of extra butter.

Variables:  Soup can be prepared chunky as above, or completely creamed or mashed. Baking potatoes work well for the creamed version, new potatoes with their skin would work well for the chunky version. (I used peeled Yukon Gold, and they worked just fine, too.)

Optional Garnishes:  black pepper, fresh or dried basil, parsley, chives or hot sauce

Optional Additions:  bacon bits, ham cubes, shredded cheese, sour cream or salsa

Sláinte!  (An Irish expression similar to cheers!)

(Originally posted on 3/14/2013 to Saints and Recipes on Blogger.)

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