The real St. Patrick

Ask anyone about Ireland's national saint, St. Patrick, and invariably you will be told three facts: He brought Christianity to Ireland, he got rid of the snakes, and he explained the Trinity using a shamrock.

Alas, all wrong.

"In those three cases, the first one is actually false and the other two are late legends," said Salvador Ryan, professor of ecclesiastical history at St. Patrick's College Maynooth in Ireland.

In fact, in 431 the pope sent Palladius as bishop to the Irish people “believing in Christ.” So when Patrick arrived in Ireland, there were already Christians there. The story of the snakes first appears in “Life of St. Patrick” from the 12th century by Jocelin of Furness. "It is maybe symbolic of banishing paganism from Ireland," said Ryan.

Then there's the shamrock. The first image of St. Patrick holding a shamrock, now so associated with him, is on a half-penny coin minted in Dublin in 1674.

But St. Patrick was not a legend. He was a real man and, uniquely for the time, wrote his own life story.  In fact, he is the only Roman citizen we know from the fifth century who was taken into slavery in a barbarian land among non-Roman peoples who lived to tell the tale and wrote about it.

St. Patrick wrote two documents: his Confessio (Confession) (about 6,500 words) , and “A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.” One is his declaration of faith, the other a severe reprimand to soldiers who conducted raids on St. Patrick's newly baptised Christians.

The Confession arises from a period of crisis. "It seems that certain allegations have been made by some people in the Church in Britain against Patrick," Ryan said. "They claim he came to Ireland for his own financial gain." Patrick wrote to set the record straight, telling his own story.

He was from Roman Britain from a well-to-do family. His father was a deacon; his grandfather a priest. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland.

In Latin, Patrick wrote: "After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy — as I realize now, the spirit was burning in me at that time" (Confessio 16).

Patrick escaped, but back in Britain, in a dream, a figure came bearing letters. "They called out as it were with one voice: 'We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk among us once again'” (Confessio 23).

Against his family's wishes, Patrick returned to Ireland.  "It is a hard station, almost a self-imposed exile. He tells us of the pain of emigration. It is a very human account," Ryan said.

Patrick refers to the conversion of hundreds of people. While there is no tradition of martyrdom in Ireland, it is clear that Patrick suffered, was protective of the converts and ready to lay down his life for them.

"What comes through powerfully is his humanity and his deep faith and humility. He says he was a stone lying in deep mire, but that God picked him up and sat him on top of the wall," Ryan said.

Looking at his writings rather than his legend, you see a man aware of his weakness. For instance, he tells of a sin he committed at age 16. He's ashamed of it and confides it to a friend. His friend breaks the confidence and tells everyone. "Patrick has long since confessed this particular sin and has done penance for it, but it comes back to bite him. Sometimes that happens to us, too. He's a flesh-and-blood saint," Ryan said.

Patrick died at the end of the fifth century. Two centuries later, biographies sponsored by the Church in Armagh, Ireland, appear, presenting him as a wonder-worker. But the Patrick of the Confession is "more impressive" than his legends, Ryan said. The saint who wrote more than 1,500 years ago said: "For this reason, may God not let it come about that I would suffer the loss of his people who have become his in the furthermost parts of the earth. I pray that God give me perseverance, and that he grant me to bear faithful witness to him right up to my passing from this life, for the sake of my God" (Confessio 58).

Susan Gately writes from Ireland