Who Was St. Patrick of Ireland?

saint lived challenging, fruitful life

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Today, St. Patrick’s Day, is a secular celebration of Irish culture. People drink green beer, attend parties, eat Irish food, and more. Where did St. Patrick’s Day originate and who is its namesake?

Statue of Saint Patrick at Croagh Patrick in Ireland
Photo by DorSteffen / Shutterstock

On March 17, people all over the world—especially in the United States, Canada, and Australia—celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The holiday has changed greatly since its original iteration in Ireland, when religious services and feasts honored St. Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints. By proxy, it also celebrated the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. Since then, the holiday has largely lost its religious undertones in many countries and taken on a secular and Ireland-focused life of its own.

In modern society, enormous celebrations overtake cities like Boston, Chicago, and Savannah. But who was the saint behind it all? In his video series The Lives of Great Christians, Dr. William Cook, Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, recalls the life of St. Patrick of Ireland.

How Did St. Patrick Come to Ireland?

Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire by the dawn of the 5th century CE, but Ireland lay outside the Roman rule. Patrick was born in Britain, and he spoke Latin—the language in which Christianity was taught, but very uncommon in Ireland—as well as another language likely related to the modern Welsh.

“We know about Patrick’s life almost entirely from two letters that he wrote later on in life, after he was in Ireland, one of those letters being largely autobiographical,” Dr. Cook said. “He was literate and, of course, he was raised as a Christian—He knew the basics of Christianity. At the age of 16 […] he was captured by a raiding party from Ireland and taken to Ireland and made a slave.”

A slave from age 16 to about 21 or 22, Patrick learned some of the language of the Irish people. He finally escaped and made his way back to England. He spent some time wandering the country before heading back to his family. After a short visit with them, Patrick made the shocking decision to return to Ireland of his own free will and bring Christianity to the Irish people.

How Did Patrick Bring Christianity to Ireland?

Patrick became a bishop sometime between the years 432 and 450 CE, though accounts differ on exactly when.

“Ireland, at the time that Patrick operated as a bishop, had no written language,” Dr. Cook said. “That’s a very difficult situation if the religion that you’re preaching is the religion of a book. But there are no books in Ireland because there is no written language.”

Again, Patrick spoke Latin, and had a Latin translation of an originally Hebrew and Greek Bible. In addition to teaching the Bible in what is likely Patrick’s third language, he also had to teach some of his converts to speak and read at least a little Latin before moving on to teach Christianity to others. Furthermore, there was no political unity in Ireland at the time, so if Patrick won over a single local ruler and was permitted to preach, he might then walk three miles down the road and have to start all over.

“Patrick went alone, as far as we know,” Dr. Cook said. “Although he had, from time to time, companions whom he converted and in some cases he ordained to the priesthood, nevertheless, we have to appreciate the danger and the loneliness that Patrick must have experienced for those 40 years.”

Throughout his years spreading Christianity throughout Ireland, Patrick was expelled from some places, detained in others, and even imprisoned. He had to bribe local pagan rulers to stay in their territories to preach, and he even believed he was preaching in the end times. Today, nearly 80% of Ireland is Roman Catholic.

The Lives of Great Christians is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily