For all the Irish, Irish-Americans, and those who are just proud of their religion, this story of a great evangelist is for you! We all know that Patrick came to Ireland and kicked out the snakes, but do you know the rest of the story, the part that is most important?
Saint Patrick was born in a place which he identified as Bannavern Taberneae. There is no town known by that name. However, some identify another place as his birth, now known as Ravenglass, Cumbria. Either way, it seems that Patrick was born on the west, or southwest coast of Britain around 389. His father, Calpurnius, was a deacon and a Roman official. His grandfather, Pontius, was a clergy member, possibly a priest. His mother, Conchessa, was a close relative of St. Martin of Tours. They appeared to be an upper middle class family.
With all this close proximity to the Church, one would think that Patrick was also close to the Church. But that was not the case. He either was not well educated, or refused to learn, as a child, for, in his autobiographical work, the Confesio, he apologized for his lack of education. He said that he lived thoughtlessly, like those around him, not heeding the warning of the clergy “who used to admonish us for our salvation”.
Around the age of 16, Patrick and others were carried off by raiding groups who had invaded the coastline. He was taken to the northeastern coast of Ireland where he was sold to a man named Michu, one of the Druid pagans who inhabited much of the island. For six years, Patrick tended the sheep of his master, on Slemish Mountain, a solitary life. He occupied himself with remembering the teachings of his family and the prayers he thought he had forgotten. Eventually, he came to accept Christianity. As he wrote in his own story, “the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied me in my youth and ignorance. He watched over me before I knew him, and before I had enough sense to distinguish between good and evil, and He protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”
Somewhere around 410 AD, Patrick had a dream that was so real, he felt he had to follow the instructions. He heard a voice warning him to be ready for a brave effort which would bring him back to freedom in the land of his birth. So, he readied his sheep, gathered food for the trip and ran away from his hard life. It is said that he walked almost 200 miles before he got to the east coast of the island.
There he found a ship moored. It took some hard praying and persuading, but he eventually convinced the crew to accept him aboard. They set sail and spent three days in a storm before landing on the British coast. After disembarking, the crew and passenger spent 28 days wandering through a wilderness. At one point, they ran out of food. This is when the crew turned to Patrick and insisted that if his God was so strong, that He should provide for them. He prayed, told them to believe, and wild swine appeared, which they killed and cooked. They later found wild honey. thus they had the sustenance to continue their journey with the strength needed.
Eventually, Patrick was able to return to his family. And, although they wanted him to stay home, he had decided on his career and nothing could get in his way. In Auxerre, France, was the new monastery of Sts Cosmos and Damian, established by Bishop Germanus. There, Patrick went to study and prepare himself for ordination. Another tradition says that Patrick also spent some time at the Lerins Abbey, on the island of St. Honorat, near the French Riviera. It is entirely possible, because by the time Patrick would have been there, it was considered by contemporaries to be an immense place. Some time between 415 and 430, Patrick was ordained.
In 432, he was consecrated Bishop of Ireland by Pope Celestine I and was sent to Ireland to evangelize. This, of course, was Patrick’s goal all along.
Patrick travelled to Ireland. He brought a number of other priests and monks with him. Finally he had the manpower to do this great work.
Simply landing proved to be a problem. First the ship landed at Inver Dea. The men got out to scout around and were chased back to the ship by pagans. Then they sailed further and moored at Inver Domhrann, where the same thing happened. Finally a storm sent them up a narrow channel where the ship was beached. The men walked a number of miles before finding a suitable location, at Saul, in what is now county Down. There they met a local chieftan, Dichu, who was quickly converted, admiring the trust this band of men had in their God. He gave them his barn for conducting their services. Patrick even wrote a little poem in honor of his first convert:
God’s blessing on Dichu
Who gave me the barn.
May he have afterwards
A heavenly home,
Bright, pure, great!
God’s blessing on Dichu,
Dichu with many children!
Among the many converts Patrick and his men made, he found British Christians who had been enslaved. The monks and priests baptized and taught from morning til night. In a relatively short period of time, he knew it was time to go on.
Patrick had learned something of the Druid customs as a slave and the slaves he found gave him more information. Patrick made his next move. He traveled to the Hill of Tora, in Meath, the kingdom south of Ulster. There is where the kings of Meath were inaugurated. The High-King Laoghaire and the Druids were there, for it was the feast of spring, March 25. It also just happened to be the Feast of Easter.
For one thousand years, the feast of spring had been celebrated by dousing all household fires and waiting for the king to start the new fire atop the mountain at night. After that, the lighting of answering flames could occur throughout the kingdom. The penalty of starting a fire before the one at Tora was death.
Patrick began his own fire, while it was still day, on the next hill. The Druids were terrified, because of a prophecy regarding an invalid fire: “Unless it is quenched on the night it was made, it will not be quenched til doomsday. And he who kindles it, will vanquish the kings and the lords of Eire unless he is forbidden.”
The kings and warriors went to investigate, not approaching too closely, for fear of seeming to reverence the fire. One man, Lochru, blasphemed the Lord in front of Patrick, who prayed and asked God to lift up the man and dash him to the ground, a prayer which would be sure to catch the attention of the crowd. And Lothru was raised up and fell to the ground, dead. The crowd made as if to fall upon Patrick and his men. He prayed again that the enemies be scattered. And they were.
In the same evening, the queen, Angas, came to Patrick, pleading for the life of her husband, assuring Patrick that Laoghaire would worship the true God. The Catholic group was invited to dinner the next day, to explain the Gospel.
But the chief of the Druids, Lucat-moel, challenged Patrick to proved whose god was the most powerful. Lucat-moel tried twice to show power, once by darkening the sun and plunging the group into blackness, and once by creating a freezing storm. Both times, Patrick had to reverse the spells for him, showing the Christian God to be superior. Patrick saw his work as favored. The Druids were not pleased.
Patrick had a chariot and a charioteer, Odhran. Due to a vision Patrick had, they switched places and, while on the road, someone threw a spear at the chariot, hitting and killing Odhran. Saddened at the loss of an associate, Patrick was not deterred.
Tradition has it that Patrick knew of a large statue of Crom Cruach in the area of Leitram. It seemed to be a solar god or a fertility god associated with new-born sacrifices in exchange for good harvests. As all are children of God, destroying the children is an evil that Patrick would not uphold. It is said that he destroyed the gold statue, with its twelve smaller statues surrounding it, with a sledgehammer. Then he built a church in its place, indicating an understanding of custom, but at the same time, the superiority of the Roman Church.
Eventually, Patrick gained the respect of the Irish people and he baptized and ordained and taught daily for years. An attentive official, Patrick also wrote to others, including Pope Leo the Great, explaining his work. His superiors in Britain accused him of paying people to be baptized and he had to write several letters in defense of his position.
Towards the end of his life, Patrick chose to make a forty day fast, on a mountain called Croagh Patrick. This mountain, also called Reek, is on the west coast of the Irish Republic. Patrick was said to have built a chapel there. After that, he went back to the location of his first ministry, Saul, where he died about 461.
Traditionally, St. Patrick is associated with the shamrock, as if he used this little plant to explain the Trinity. We do not know if this is true. He never mentioned it himself. But it certainly is an easy mode of teaching the Mystery. We should keep this in mind as we explain our beliefs to others.