Looking for a unique Christmas gift? We have a wide selection of Irish and Celtic gifts as well as US products. Start your Christmas gift search here.

McWooly the Irish Beanie Babie Bear
Irish Beanie Babies


Looking for Irish recipes? Try our Irish recipe index. Don't miss the Braised Cabbage, Irish Stew and Boxty recipes.



Who Was St. Patrick, Really?

Naturally, mysteries and controversies abound. There is some solid factual information to be found about St. Patrick, but it is characteristically sketchy, and two or more disputed versions exist for most places and dates in the saint's biography. For example, there are his birth details. The year? Most accept a birthdate of 385 A.D., with some dissenters. He was born somewhere along the west coast of Britain, most can agree, and many say his birthplace was near Dumbarton in Scotland. It is generally agreed that his family was wealthy, and that he had a proper religious upbringing; his father was a church deacon and his grandfather was a priest. While Patrick absorbed the religious scriptures and teachings that surrounded him growing up, he was not very religious himself.

Sold into Slavery

At that point in time, Britain was under Roman rule. Meanwhile, Goths and barbarian hordes were laying siege to the Roman Empire, and all Roman soldiers in distant lands were recalled to Rome to defend the homeland. Upon the soldiers' retreat from Britain, Irish raiders moved in to loot British towns, which were now unguarded. In a raid on his family's estate, Patrick—then only 16 years old—was seized and sold into slavery to an Irish landowner, who put him to work as a shepherd. Depending on the version one chooses to believe, his owner lived either on Mount Slemish in County Antrim or near Killala in County Mayo.

For spiritual comfort, he turned back to the Christian teachings of his youth. He prayed almost without cease as he tended sheep, becoming a very devout Christian. [As he himself wrote in his memoirs, “In a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same.”] After six years in slavery, Patrick heard a voice from above directing him to escape his captivity. To comply, Patrick walked hundreds of miles to Wexford on the Irish coast, where he boarded a ship bound for Britain—and received another message from God.

Patrick dreamed of an angel, who told him to head right back to Ireland and do missionary work. He began his religious training, which lasted more than a decade, much of it spent in French monasteries. Following his ordination, he returned to Ireland circa 432. For the rest of his time on earth, he was devoted to his life's work, banishing paganism and converting all of Ireland to Christianity. He baptized more than 120,000 Irish people, and founded upwards of 300 churches. Christian monasteries established by Irish monks became repositories where some of the most historically important texts of Western civilization were copied and preserved. Within two centuries of his death, peaceful conversion to Christianity in Ireland was complete, and slavery and intertribal battles were extinct.

Myths and Legends

Most of the facts that can be learned about St. Patrick come from two writings: an autobiographical piece entitled Confession, and a letter to Coroticus, ruler of a small kingdom on the west coast of Britain (in this letter, St. Patrick scolded Coroticus for taking baptized women as spoils of war). Any event not mentioned in St. Patrick's own writings has been made up over the centuries by ancient storytellers and become part of his legend.

ShamrockAmong the incidents most closely associated with St. Patrick, many are outright fabrications, such as the story that he drove the snakes from Ireland. This feat is actually easier to perform than it sounds, since snakes have never been native to Ireland. Even the story of St. Patrick and the Shamrock — in which St. Patrick is said to have compared the three-leafed clover to the Holy Trinity—is said to fall into the category of fiction. Nothing about St. Patrick is quite what it seems, and no fact about this patron saint of Irish is initially as surprising as the revelation that Paddy wasn't even Irish.

St. Patrick died on March 17, 461, and the anniversary of his death, or feast day, is celebrated by Irish and non-Irish people the world over. Further pages in this series describe the parades and festivities held worldwide in honor of St. Paddy.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 > Next: Feast Day in Ireland