Like most holidays celebrated in the United States today, St. Patrick’s Day has become thoroughly commercialized with many Americans knowing little about the day other than its loose associations with Irish culture.
The true story of St. Patrick, a man who helped to bring Christianity to a thoroughly pagan Ireland, is truly remarkable and worth celebrating. His life shows how one person can make a difference and that a culture steeped in darkness can be brought into the light.
Born in Roman Britain sometime during the 4th or 5th century A.D. (estimates vary), Patrick, also known as Maewyn Succat, was kidnapped and brought to Ireland after his village was sacked by Irish raiders when he was just 16.
“My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner,” Patrick wrote about his early life in his “Confessions of St. Patrick.”
Although his family was deeply Christian, Patrick said that he “knew not the true God” prior to his captivity. In Ireland, Patrick was sold into slavery and ended up as a shepherd, according to tradition. It was during his six years as a shepherd and farmhand that Patrick’s indifference to Christianity melted away.
“[But] in that strange land the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes, and although late I called my sins to mind, and was converted with my whole heart to the Lord my God, who regarded my low estate, had pity on my youth and ignorance, and consoled me as a father consoles his children. Every day I used to look after sheep and I used to pray often during the day, the love of God and a holy fear of Him increased more and more in me,” Patrick said of his conversion to Christianity.
He added that he would pray up to 100 times a day while out watching the sheep. Patrick believed that this time of spiritual devotion was preparing him for a deeper purpose. “As I now realize, it was because the Spirit was maturing and preparing me for a work yet to come,” he explained.
One night during his captivity, Patrick said he had a dream that God was telling him to run away and go back to his village, which was located in modern-day Scotland. “You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country,” he said an angel told him. After trekking 200 miles to the coast he was able to catch a British ship and begin a lengthy journey back to his village.
Following years back in his homeland, Patrick had another life-changing dream. In this dream, which he compared to a “vision like the apostle Paul’s at Troas,” Patrick said he saw an Irishman asking him to come back to the Emerald Isle. “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us,” Patrick recounted an Irishman asking him during a dream.
Patrick would return to Ireland with a mission of spreading Christianity, even though he knew he would face opposition because of the pagan customs entrenched in Irish culture. He was so committed to spreading the gospel of Jesus that he was willing to die if necessary.
“For daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises. But I fear nothing, because of the promises of Heaven; for I have cast myself into the hands of Almighty God, who reigns everywhere,” Patrick wrote in his reflections.
Many in Ireland, including King Loegaire, converted to Christianity because of Patrick’s efforts. The king’s conversion came after a face-off between the Christian and a group of druids, according to the Dictionary of Irish Biography.
Thanks to the success of his evangelism, Patrick became known as the “Apostle of Ireland.” W.D. Killen, a church historian, wrote, “There can be no reasonable doubt that Patrick preached the gospel, that he was a most zealous and efficient evangelist, and that he is entitled to be called the Apostle of Ireland.”
Patrick’s influence on Ireland is widespread, and according to Thomas Cahill, author of the bestselling book “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” Patrick likely helped bring human sacrifices on the island to an end.
Cahill credits the Irish with keeping Western civilization afloat thanks to the monasteries that sprung up on the island after Patrick spread Christianity throughout. These monasteries preserved the classical tradition after the Western Roman Empire fell, and the manuscripts preserved by the monks were later used to reinvigorate European civilization.
“And that,” Cahill wrote, “is how the Irish saved civilization.”
In 1631, over 1,000 years after Patrick lived, the church recognized March 17 as a feast day to honor the patron saint of Ireland. Since that time, the holiday has evolved with various celebrations across the world and especially among traditional Irish communities.
As the celebrations continued, many legends and stories have been added about Patrick’s influence on Ireland and the deeds that took place during his life but what is incontrovertibly true is that he brought Christianity to a place where it had not flourished before. And that is something to remember this St. Patrick’s day.