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Saint Patrick

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Statue of Saint Patrick
Statue of Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick (died March 17, 462 or 492/493) is the patron saint of Ireland. He was born somewhere along the west coast of Britain in the little settlement or village of Bannavem of Taburnia (vico banavem taburniae in his Confession), which has never been securely identified. It was probably on a coast in the south of England (sites suggested include Dumbarton and Somerset, another possibility put forward for his birthplace is the settlement of Bannaventa in Northamptonshire), for pagan raiders captured Patrick with "many thousands of people" and sold them as slaves in Ireland.

His father was Calpornius, a deacon in a Baptist church, son of Potitus, who was Romano-British. A questionable old tradition makes his mother from the upper-class Gaulish family of Martin of Tours, though Patrick makes no such prideful claim. According to his Confessio, at the age of about sixteen, Patrick was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave to a Druidic chieftain named Milchu in Dalriada, County Antrim (though Fochill in County Mayo is the more likely setting).

Although he came from a Christian family, he was not particularly religious before his capture. However, his enslavement markedly strengthened his faith. He escaped at the age of twenty-two and returned to Britain after the death of his father, and later becoming one of the first Christian proselytizers in Ireland, being preceded by such men as Palladius (died 457?/461?).

Britain at this time was undergoing turmoil following the withdrawal of Roman troops in 407 and Roman central authority in 410. Having been under the Roman cloak for over 350 years, the Romano-British were having to look after themselves. Populations were on the move on the European continent, and the recently converted Christian Britain was being colonised by pagan Anglo-Saxons.

He arrived in Ireland to start his mission in either 432 or 462 AD; there was and continues to be much controversy concerning the date of the inception of his mission. His first converted patron was Dichu, who made a gift of a large sabhall (barn) for a church sanctuary. This first sanctuary dedicated by St Patrick became in later years his chosen retreat. A monastery and church were erected there, and there Patrick died; the site, Saul County Down, retains the name Sabhall (pronounced "Saul").

The story of the annual vernal fire that was to be lit by the High King at Tara, when all the fires were extinguished, to be renewed from the sacred fire from Tara, and of Patrick's rival, miraculously inextinguishable Christian bonfire on the hill of Slane at the opposite end of the valley, is famous among his many exploits. The season was associated with Easter (compare the British season of Eostre) by the Christian chroniclers who followed Patrick's own account in his Confessio.

He was one of the earliest writers to advocate the abolition of slavery.

Patrick was not the first Christian missionary to Ireland, as men such as Secundus and Palladius were active in the south of the island long before him. However, tradition accords him the most impact, and his missions do seem to have been concentrated in the provinces of Ulster and Connaught which had never received Christians before.

Mythology credits him with banishing snakes from the island, though others suggest that for climatic reasons post-glacial Ireland never actually had snakes; one suggestion is that "snakes" referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids of that time and place, as shown for instance on coins minted in Gaul (see Carnutes), or that it could have referred to heretical beliefs such as Pelagianism, symbolized as "serpents".

Legend also credits Patrick with teaching the Irish about the concept of the Trinity by showing people the shamrock, a three-leaved clover, using it to highlight the Christian dogma of 'three divine persons in the one god' (as opposed to the Arian heresy that was popular in Patrick's time). Though it should be noted that tripartine gods were not new to the Irish pagans.

It is unknown on what date he was born but it would have been at the beginning of the 5th century. He died in 491 AD according to the latest reconstruction of the old Irish annals. It is believed that March 17 was his death date (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica) and it is the date popularly associated with him as his feast, known as St. Patrick's Day).

External links

  • The Confession of St Patrick
  • St Patrick
  • Saint Patrick
  • Fr. Ciaran Needham SPS, "Saint Patrick's Life"
  • Evidence regarding date of birth

Last updated: 02-07-2005 03:44:52
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55