Who was the Real St. Patrick?

By Scott Hubbard,

This coming Saturday, parts of Old Town Fort Collins will be closed for the St. Patrick's Day Parade ahead of the holiday next week. People will gather from throughout Northern Colorado to celebrate the holiday. And while people will be dressed in their green attire and wearing shamrocks, most people don't know who the real St. Patrick was, why we wear green for St. Patrick's Day, or why clovers are part of this holiday.  In this blog, we will explore who St. Patrick was and explore some of these common associations we have with St. Patrick's Day. 

Who was St. Patrick?

Like many other famous saints—such as St. Nicholas or St. Valentine—whose legacies have been woven into the fabric of American culture, the popular remembrances of St. Patrick are laced with myth and misunderstanding.  Legend has it, for instance, that he was responsible for driving out the entire population of snakes from Ireland.  In reality, however, the unwelcome reptiles had never lived on the island in the first place.  Another widely circulated story is that St. Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to describe the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  The holiday may have taken its central symbol from this tale, but there is not much evidence to suggest that it is grounded in history.

Moreover, anyone trying to get an accurate picture of the fifth-century saint would receive little help from modern-day traditions.  It may be surprising to find out, for instance, that St. Patrick was actually not Irish, and had no Irish blood in him.  Also of interest is the reality that he was originally associated with the color blue rather than green (there is even a shade of blue named after him).  Indeed, it seems that the majority of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities and traditions find their origins, not in the actual history of this exceptional man, but in the accumulated folklore of the Irish nation in the centuries following his death around 460 A.D.

What is the result, then, of peeling back the layers of the tales told and retold across the span of generations?  Who is this St. Patrick, whose life and legacy still ripple into the twenty-first century, and are sure to do so for many more?  The details may be scarce and some accounts disputed, but the accepted facts reveal a remarkable existence—the story of how a kidnapped sixteen-year-old became the patron saint of Ireland.

As the Roman Empire’s grip on Britain crumbled in the early fifth century and began receding to its center, bands of Irishmen began making raids into the neighboring island to kidnap and enslave its ill-protected citizens.  At the age of sixteen, Maewyn Succat (who later changed his name to “Patrick”) was abducted from Wales by a group of such raiders and held as a slave in Ireland for six years.  Divided from his family and afraid, Patrick worked as an isolated shepherd during the time of his captivity.

It should be noted, however, that he was not entirely without solace during these years of separation from home and family.  Growing up, he had been taught the basic doctrines and precepts of Christianity by his father Calpornius, who was a deacon, and his grandfather Potitus, a priest.  If the gospel of Jesus Christ had not been precious to him during these formative years, it became so during the time of his captivity.  With a growing faith, Patrick found comfort in the care of a Savior who could sympathize with his loneliness and distress—who, indeed, had undergone the suffering of the cross for his sake, and whose promise Patrick tested and found true: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  Such were the seeds in Patrick’s heart which, when fully grown, gave way to the impulses and actions befitting a saint.

Patrick heard a voice at the end of six years telling him to go home and, taking it to be the voice of his God, he escaped from his master and walked to a port nearly 200 miles away where he found a ship leaving for Britain.  A few years after returning home, however, Patrick received another vision, of which he wrote, “I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people” whom he had so recently lived among, imploring him to come back.  Without much delay, Patrick entered into religious training with a single aim in mind: to become a missionary to the Irish people.  After the lengthy training ended and he was ordained as a priest, Patrick did just that, returning to the country of his captivity armed not with the sword of vengeance, but with the gospel of peace and reconciliation.

What would cause a man to go back to a land so fraught with personal heartache, whose inhabitants had torn him from his family and robbed six years from the prime of his life?  Was it merely the sure command of God that compelled him to return?  It cannot be said decisively, but one would think that Patrick would need more than a fleeting vision to command his life’s energy and passion—that such a command could be willfully suppressed under the desires and comforts of home.  No, it seems as if there was an additional force that summoned Patrick back to Ireland to be the missionary that he became.  The most likely reason he returned is that he shared the same spirit of Jesus his Savior, who came to die, not for those who loved Him, but for His enemies.  “God shows His love for us,” said the apostle Paul, “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  Whether this love had penetrated Patrick’s soul before or after he received the supernatural vision, it seems that it was this divine love which drew him back.  The first time he set foot on Ireland’s shore it was as a slave, but the second time it was as a messenger of the One who came to “proclaim liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18).

Patrick lived in Ireland for the rest of his life, his accomplishments bearing witness to his divine calling and justifying why we still remember him today.  In his own words, Patrick "baptised thousands of people" as he faithfully and lovingly spread the message of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.  He built many schools and monasteries along the way, consistently devoting his life to the physical, mental, and spiritual health of Ireland's people.  He sometimes met with antagonism and it cannot be said that his life as a foreigner was easy, but the effects of it shine as a bright light in Ireland's history and are the foundation for the yearly celebration in his name.  St. Patrick would no doubt find it fitting, therefore, if amidst the celebration and festivities of March 17th, hearts were turned to the One whose love compelled the former slave to love his captors, and whose love is still extended today in the gospel and person of His Son Jesus Christ.