Demystifying St. Patrick on the Eve of His Well-Known Holiday

patron saint of ireland, a far cry from boozy revelry, historians say

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

St. Patrick’s Day bears shockingly little resemblance to its patron saint. Despite the parades, green beer, Irish breakfasts, and full bars, few of us pause to consider the reason for the holiday. St. Patrick was a wealthy Briton kidnapped by Irish slavers.

St Patrick stain glass window mosaic
The patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, is honored annually through the celebration of the religious holiday of Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17. Photo by Thad Zajdowicz / Flickr/ Public Domain

Several sites around Ireland are named for St. Patrick, the patron saint of the March 17 holiday. For bringing Christianity to Ireland and engaging in a nonviolent conversion of the Irish, he was honored with several dedications. Croagh Patrick, known as “Patrick’s sacred mountain,” is one popular site of reverence. Meanwhile, St. Patrick’s Cathedral has stood the test of time and is still a center for prayer and culture in Ireland after more than 800 years.

Where does such strong national tribute come from? Who was the man behind St. Patrick’s Day? Patrick himself was, surprisingly, not even Irish. He was a wealthy British teen when his historical journey began.

In his video series The Great Tours: Ireland and Northern Ireland, Dr. Marc C. Conner, President of Skidmore College, explored Patrick’s life and legacy.

A Saint’s Row

“Patrick lived in the 5th century CE, but ironically, he was not even born in Ireland,” Dr. Conner said. “He was a Briton, born, in what is now England, to a relatively wealthy family. At the age of 16, he was captured by Irish Celtic slavers and brought to Ireland to labor as a slave herding sheep on the lonely hillsides.”

A supposed autobiography says that while in Ireland, Patrick heard the voice of God speak to him. He became a believer in Christianity and believed that God sustained him through the arduous six years he spent in Ireland before he escaped and returned to his family. After becoming a priest, and then a bishop, Patrick believed God told him to return to Ireland and bring Christianity to his enslavers.

“In 432, Patrick returned to Ireland and began the astonishing, bloodless conversion of the Irish to Christianity,” Dr. Conner said. “For 30 years, he traveled throughout Ireland, establishing churches, ordaining priests, and ministering to the Irish. Ever since, he has been revered as the Patron Saint of Ireland.”

Croagh Patrick

Dr. Conner said that every county in Ireland likely has some artifact or site that it claims is related to St. Patrick. The biggest is likely St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which remains a staple of Irish Christianity and culture to this day. But what about the mountain known as Croagh Patrick in County Mayo?

“It rises some 2,500 feet above the countryside, looking down on lovely Clew Bay and the charming town of Westport,” he said. “It was here, in 441 CE, that Patrick is reputed to have held his famous fast for 40 days.”

More than a million visitors come to Croagh Patrick, or “St. Patrick’s Mountain,” each year. Dr. Conner said that many of them are devout Catholic pilgrims who walk a ceremonial route up the mountain to “repeat the penitential steps of Patrick.”

The mountain, he said, is located in the west of Ireland, near Galway, and it offers a spectacular view, which extends several miles in any direction. The walk up the mountainside features a “famine monument” at the Visitor’s Center at the base, a statue of St. Patrick on the way up, and a modern chapel which holds mass and offers confessions. Even for non-Christians, the hike is a powerful tribute to a historical figure in Irish history.

Just make sure to make the hike before starting in on the green beer.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily