Saint Patrick, Ireland’s Patron Saint

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Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick

Why is Saint Patrick celebrated?

St Patrick is the Patron Saint of Ireland. A fifth century missionary, he is credited with bringing Christianity to our land. Venerated as a Catholic Saint, he is admired and respected by all Christian faiths.

Thanks to the Irish Diaspora (ie ethnic Irish people and their descendants around the globe), his feast day 17th March is celebrated throughout the world. Assuming the Diaspora includes the native Irish and all those abroad known to have Irish ancestors, then the total is estimated as over 100 million people – this is more than fifteen times the current population of the island of Ireland (Wikipedia).

Saint Patrick’s Early Life

Near the end of his life, Patrick wrote his Confessio. More a reflection of his feelings than an autobiography, it does however, give us some details of the Saint’s early life. Patrick was born in Roman Britain in a village he calls Bannavem Taburniae. Scholars have disputed the whereabouts of this location with northern England, Scotland and Wales suggested as possibilities. His father was Calpornius, a local official and his grandfather Potius, a deacon. By his own account Patrick was not interested in religion and was somewhat wayward.

Arrival in Ireland

At the age of 16 Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. This event he was later to see as a just punishment for the sins of his early life.

“I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people – and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep his commandments, and did not obey our priests…”

St Patrick, Confessio

Patrick was put to work looking after sheep on the slopes of the Slemish Mountain in County Antrim. Here, alone and out in all weathers, he discovered the Faith that was to sustain him throughout his life.

Slemish where St Patrick tended his sheep - Image by Pastor Sam, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Slemish where St Patrick tended his sheep
Pastor Sam, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“….every day I had to tend the sheep, and many times a day I prayed – the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened”

St Patrick, Confessio

Escape from Ireland

After six years of enslavement, Patrick had a dream telling him that a ship was ready to take him home. Fleeing his master he walked 200 miles and with a little difficulty persuaded the ship’s captain to let him board. When after three days sailing the boat docked in Britain, Patrick and the crew found themselves in a “wilderness” without food. Patrick urged the men to put their faith in God and when they did, a herd of boar appeared and they were saved from starvation.

When Patrick eventually arrived home, to the delight of his family, he decided to study Christianity. He was educated in Auxerre and Tours in France and was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Germanus. Despite this, Patrick was always embarrassed by his lack of learning compared to his peers.

“I was afraid of exposing myself to the talk of men, because I have not studied like the others. Who thoroughly imbibed law and Sacred Scripture…..”

St Patrick, Confessio

Saint Patrick’s Return to Ireland

Answering the Irish Call

A few years later Patrick was to have a vision that was to change his life. He saw a man named Victoricus carrying many letters, one of which he gave to Patrick. It was titled ‘The Voice of the Irish’ and Patrick heard the voices of the people crying out to him to return. The dream occurred time after time and Patrick approached the Church hierarchy for permission to return to Ireland. At first this was refused due to his youthful misdemeanours, but eventually he was permitted to embark on his mission.


It is said Patrick first landed at the port of Wicklow but was not welcomed there and so sailed north. Patrick spent the next forty years of his life preaching and converting the population. He met with hardship, derision and even imprisonment but he never faltered in his missionary zeal. Patrick spoke to kings, druids and ordinary folk and “baptised so many thousands”. It is claimed he used the indigenous little shamrock to explain the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity.

Irish Shamrock
Irish Shamrock

Growth of Christianity

The first sanctuary dedicated by Patrick was at Saul. He turned the people away from their belief in Celtic gods and ordained priests to carry on his work. Churches, monasteries and convents were established and he is credited with being the first Bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland.

“Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!”

St Patrick, Confessio
St. Patrick healing a sick man while the crowd stand by and marvel at his faith
St. Patrick healing a sick man while the crowd stand by and marvel at his faith.
Photographer: Thomas H. Mason. National Library of Ireland on The Commons @ Flickr Commons

St Patrick is said to have died at Saul on 17th March 461. His body was brought to Downpatrick for burial. Downpatrick in Irish is Dun Padraig meaning ‘Patrick’s stronghold’. Francis Joseph Bigger, the renowned Celtic scholar, had the grave marked with a huge granite slab. The site in Down Cathedral remains a popular place of pilgrimage.

Legends of Saint Patrick

Many stories have grown up around St Patrick, which all Irish children readily know!

Banishment of Snakes from Ireland

Probably the most famous is that Patrick banished snakes from the land and drove them into the sea.

It is a fact that there are no snakes or reptiles in Ireland today!

The Demon Goddess, Cailleach & her Sluagh hordes

When Patrick was praying and fasting on the hill now known as Croagh Patrick, he was tormented by the Sluagh. These were the evil souls of those who could not find rest and servants of the demon goddess Cailleach. They appeared to him as a vast flock of black ravens ready to tear him apart. Patrick called upon God to intervene and immediately a strong wind swept the birds out to sea and under the waves.

Lough Derg – Cailleach attacks

Patrick had to face the evil Cailleach herself on a small island on a lake in Count Donegal. Cailleach is sometimes represented as a dragon.

An epic battle ensued. No one knows how long the fight lasted but Cailleach managed to swallow Patrick whole! With God’s help Patrick used his crosier to tear his way out of the hag’s stomach. Her blood stained the lake’s water red.

This is how Lough Derg got its name, as the Gaelic word for red is ‘dearg’. Lough Derg is also known as St Patrick’s Purgatory and is a holy place of fasting and prayer for pilgrims today.

It is said Cailleach is still imprisoned in the deep Lough and will remain so as long as Ireland keeps the Faith.

Station Island, Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland, 2009
South-east view of the basilica on Station Island, designed by William Scott (1871–1921).
Image by A F Borchert. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

Patrick Challenges the Druid King

In the year 433 St Patrick lit a Pascal fire on Slane, 12 miles from the Hill of Tara, the fort of Laeghaire, High King of Ireland.

This was in direct defiance of the Druidic tradition of the Bealtaine fires. Patrick came to the royal court to face the king and his chief Druid. There were many contests between the two religious leaders.

The Druid made snow fall upon the surrounding plain, Patrick blessed it and the snow disappeared. The Druid brought darkness over the land, Patrick made the Sign of the Cross and the sun reappeared. Through various miracles and prayers Patrick convinced and converted many of the king’s people.

Laeghaire himself was baptised, though it is rumoured he wanted to keep his ‘options open’ and remained half pagan!

Celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day

Today in Ireland and in many other countries, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated by the ‘wearing of the green’.

Here in Patrick’s adopted country it is usual for Catholics to attend Mass on the morning of the 17th March and to wear green clothing and if possible, a sprig of shamrock. If the weather is fine we say St Patrick has ‘turned the stone’ meaning Spring is nearly here.

Parades big and small are arranged in cities, towns and villages throughout the land. Traditionally many people also climb Slemish Hill, (stout boots recommended) which is a great experience, not only spiritually but for the wonderful atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship!

In County Mayo pilgrims also ascend Croagh Patrick on the Saint’s Holy Day. It is a day of feasting and celebration in honour of our national Patron, St Patrick the ‘Apostle of Ireland’.

Croagh Patrick for L9179
They do say over twenty thousand people climb this holy mountain on Pilgrim Sunday and I can well believe it!! The Civil Defence wearing the red helmets.

  © Copyright Alan James and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Croagh Patrick for L9179 They do say over twenty thousand people climb this holy mountain on Pilgrim Sunday and I can well believe it!! The Civil Defence wearing the red helmets. © Copyright Alan James and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The Lorica Patrick’s Breast-Plate

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate is an Old Irish prayer of protection:

I arise today
through the strength of Heaven:
light of the Sun,
brilliance of the Moon,
splendour of Fire,
speed of Lighting,
swiftness of Wind.
depth of Sea,
stability of Earth,
firmness of Rock,
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

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