Patrick was all in all a good egg. Though we often think of him as Irish (and he is one of the patrons of Ireland), he was actually Romano-British, born in the late 300s. He grew up in Roman-influenced Britain, with a father who was a deacon and a decurion, a minor Roman official, and a grandfather who was a priest. He surely grew up at least bilingual in his local British tongue and in Latin.
Life changed abruptly when Irish pirates stole him and sold him to a master who used him as a shepherd for six years. Shepherds have a lot of time to think and Patrick’s thoughts turned to the teachings of his father and grandfather. When a vision told him to escape, he skedaddled and after hiking 200 miles, he caught ship and returned to Britain.
There later on he had another vision, of the Irish calling on him to return with the good news. His convictions led him to seek more education on the continent and after further preparation he was consecrated bishop and sent back to Ireland. In Ireland, as he describes in his Confession, he baptized many thousands, ordained clerics to serve, and helped aristocratic women to take vows as virgins (which offered a life of autonomy relative to the political marriages they might otherwise have). Many churches in Ireland claim foundation by Patrick and almost certainly some of them actually were.
Did he drive out the snakes? There were never any snakes there to begin with. Did he preach with a shamrock? Who knows — the earliest record of it is more than a thousand years after his death, but trifold imagery was powerful in Ireland.
We are fortunate to have two writings from Patrick himself. In addition to the Confession linked above, we have his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, in which he rebuked the soldiers that had killed Patrick’s converts and sold others into slavery, and in so doing hoped to draw them to change their ways. Both pieces were written in Latin and share the discursiveness of many late Roman texts. They are nonetheless windows into the mind of someone who lived in the fifth century and is still admired today.
In addition to churches, Patrick left schools and an Ireland that was increasingly connected to the continent. The Irish monasteries preserved learning that was lost during the barbarian invasions elsewhere.
I hope you are enjoying something festive today for this Romano-British Celtic survivor, hero and saint!
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