What is the origin of St. Patrick’s Day? How did it start, and exactly who was the person this day supposedly honors? The life of the real Patrick is a truly fascinating account.
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St. Patrick’s Day is mostly about celebration. It is associated with Irish pride and a legendary figure about whom most people know almost nothing. Regardless of what is known about St. Patrick, the day is always observed in a spirited fashion. The Irish are well known for being a spirited people. Anyone who has visited Ireland readily observes how so many Irish traditionally congregate in local pubs on ordinary evenings in an atmosphere of mirth and enjoyment of life.
St. Patrick’s Day has become an annual event, often attracting extensive worldwide media coverage due to the intensity with which this special occasion is celebrated. The celebrants are often equally Irish and non-Irish, since all nationalities enjoy festivities. These celebrations feature the wearing of green clothing, marching in parades and hailing the symbols of shamrocks, leprechauns and other symbols of Irish folklore. Some like to sport green nails and green hair, drink green beer and even paint their faces green.
Why all this honor for St. Patrick? Truly, this icon, who has come to represent Ireland and all things Irish, is virtually enshrined in legend. Could such an individual have ever existed?
Excerpts from an article, “Patrick, Saint,” from The World Book Encyclopedia, gives us a hint: “…Many legends grew up about this popular saint. One of the best known is that he charmed the snakes of Ireland down to the seashore so they were driven into the water and drowned. Much else that is told of Saint Patrick is little more than legend. He left a sort of autobiography in his Confession, written in crude Latin…Much study has been given to Saint Patrick, but little that goes beyond the testimony of his own writings can be accepted as certain…”
Further study into this topic reveals that the legendary figure is nothing more than a fictitious invention created for the purpose of obscuring the identity of the real Patrick and what he represented. We begin this fascinating search by carefully covering some of his own writings along with some observations by reliable historical sources.
From his short autobiography, Confession, we find that Patrick’s father was named Calpurnius, a deacon in a church of the Christian religion. His grandfather, Potitus, was a presbyter in that same church. Patrick and his ancestors lived in the ancient town of Banavan in the area he called “the Britains.” Some sources place the location of this town near the English/Scottish border, while Neander, in his General History of the Christian Religion and Church, places the location decidedly in southern Scotland, yet reckoned to the province of Britain. The approximate date of his birth was somewhere between A.D. 360 to 380.
Before continuing with what Patrick disclosed in his Confession, one source adds some interesting insight about his family. Patrick’s father was a landowner and a decurion—an official in the provisional Roman government (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. 21, p. 933). This meant that Patrick and his ancestors were Roman citizens—a definite badge of nobility. Although his British name was Succat, we will refer to him as Patrick, translated from his Roman name Patricius.
In Confession, Patrick explained that he was captured from the farm owned by his ancestors: “I was then almost sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God; and was taken to Ireland in captivity with many thousand men in accordance with our [just] deserts, because we walked at a distance from God and did not observe His commandments.” Patrick had been kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he remained for six to seven years. During this time, he acquired the Irish dialect of the Celtic language. Being able to communicate in the Irish dialect was crucial in regard to his future work in Ireland.
His years in captivity had intensified his desire to seek the truth. Cathcart, in his The Ancient British and Irish Churches, further disclosed that after escaping captivity, he returned home to Scotland, where he remained for about ten years. There, he solidified his convictions by drinking in the words of the Scriptures for which he had thirsted while in slavery.
At this point, it is crucial that the distinction be made pertaining to the religion of Patrick and his ancestors, as opposed to the religion that became dominant in the Roman Empire. He and his relatives were deeply committed to Celtic Christianity. They lived during the late fourth century A.D., when the church at Rome had come of age and was opposing original apostolic Christianity, calling it “Judaizing.”
Celtic Christianity had been taken to the British Isles by some of the original apostles and their associates, as recorded in numerous sources, including Remains of Britain. Even the Catholic historian Archbishop Ussher acknowledged that the Church in Ireland was established soon after the death of Christ by disciples from the Asian (Judean) churches.
The Celtic Church in the British Isles had maintained the original teachings of the apostles without compromise. It had been insulated from much of the direct intimidation by the church at Rome, which could call upon the state to force all within the confines of the Roman Empire to conform or face deportation or death. Some pressure had been exerted in England and Wales, while Ireland and Scotland were less impeded in their continuation of apostolic Christianity.
“The Celts believed in a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of the creation of man and the universe. Free moral agency was stressed, salvation could not be forced on anyone. Obedience of the Ten Commandments was a vital requirement for one wishing to obtain salvation, but even so, the Celtic Christian did not believe in salvation by works…Sincere prayer was advocated as vain repetition was not acceptable. There was no invocation of saints, angels or martyrs in the early Celtic Church” (The Incredible History of God’s True Church, Fletcher).
To appreciate the Celtic Church’s identification with Sabbath observance before, during and after Patrick’s ministry in Ireland, note the following: “It seems to have been customary in the Celtic churches of early times, in Ireland as well as Scotland, to keep Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, as a day of rest from labor. They obeyed the fourth commandment literally upon the seventh day of the week” (The Church in Scotland, Moffatt, 1882, p. 140).
The dying words of Columba, a successor of Patrick, follows: “This day is called the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest, and such will it truly be to me; for it will put an end to my labors” (Lives of the Saints, Butler, vol. 6, p. 139).
Concerning the training given in the Celtic Church during and after the time of Patrick, we read, “The youth in the Culdee [Celtic Church in Scotland about the 6th century] schools clung to the fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the divinity of Christ, baptism, the atonement, inspiration of the Scriptures, the prophecies connected with the last days. They did not accept the doctrines of infallibility, celibacy, transubstantiation, the confessional, the mass, relic worship, image adoration, and the primacy of Peter” (Truth Triumphant, Wilkinson, p.108).
During those years at home, Patrick was in preparation (by intense study of the Scriptures) for what awaited him in the future. Some distorted accounts recorded hundreds of years later claimed that Patrick, some time after his captivity, had gone to a Catholic monastery in Gaul as preparation for his future commission. Such accounts were mere fabrications, since, in his own account, Patrick never mentioned any connection with the Roman Catholics.
Patrick had a realistic dream in which the Irish were beckoning him to come and teach them as they proclaimed, “We pray thee, holy youth, to come and walk again amongst us as before” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. 21, p. 933). Patrick was determined to answer this commission, which he regarded as being “from God.” This is similar to the account recorded in Acts 16:9-10, in which the apostle Paul had a vision or dream of a man from Macedonia bidding him to “come over into Macedonia, and help us.” Patrick readily complied, just as Paul had done.
With a number of helpers, Patrick traveled back to Ireland to teach the Irish the same gospel that some of their ancestors had received from the original apostles three centuries earlier. His first destination in Ireland was the very location where he had been held captive. Notice: “Therefore he proceeded immediately to County Antrim in the northwest, where he had endured slavery. While he failed to win his former slave master, he was successful in converting the master’s household” (Truth Triumphant, p. 85).
For the remaining sixty years of his life, Patrick reinforced apostolic Christianity in Ireland, which took root and flourished for about 700 years. “The training centers he founded, which later grew into colleges and large universities, were all Bible schools” (Ibid.). Probably the most famous student who would emerge from these schools was Columba, an Irishman of the royal family who dedicated his life to service in Scotland. Interestingly enough, Patrick had been a Scotsman who dedicated his life to service in Ireland.
Patrick (380-472) had been the founder of the Bible schools and training centers in Ireland, some of which developed into colleges. Under the leadership of Columba (521-600), these colleges grew, with some developing into universities in both Ireland and Scotland.
Some historians claim that these schools were monasteries as existed under the Roman church. Others who referred to these schools as monasteries clearly recognized them as being radically different from all forms of Catholic monasteries. For example, the Celtic Church had always advocated stable close-knit families and permitted the clergy to marry, just as it opposed the practice of celibacy.
To Patrick, the churches and schools were inseparable. Neither could exist for long without the other, because true salvation had always been a process of education. He knew that without the underpinnings of a sound education, people could be easily deceived and led into error by false religion.
Concerning the range of subjects studied in these Celtic schools, notice: “The monastery was, in fact, a college where all the branches of learning then known were diligently cultivated; where astronomy was studied; where Greek as well as Latin literature entered into the curriculum; where the sons of kings and nobles received tuition; and where pious and promising youths were training up for the sacred office…But theology was the subject with which the attention of the teachers of the monastery was chiefly occupied; the Bible was their daily textbook; their pupils were required to commit much of it to memory” (Ibid., p. 108).
Celtic Christianity flourished in Ireland since it was regarded as a wilderness by Rome. Patrick’s commission to this island was greatly enhanced by this fact. He truly had led a portion of “the church in the wilderness” (Rev. 12:6) in his lifetime.
After seven centuries of relative freedom, Ireland finally came under the subjugation of the Roman church. The many schools, colleges and universities were taken over. So powerful had been the contribution of Patrick and his successors that it became necessary to invent a fictitious Patrick—one loyal to the church of Rome. In the course of mankind’s struggles and wars, “the victors always rewrite history,” and the church of Rome was no different.
It is crucial to understand Patrick’s rejection of emissaries from Rome: “He [Patrick] never mentions either Rome or the pope or hints that he was in any way connected with the ecclesiastical capital of Italy. He recognizes no other authority than that of the word of God…When Palladius arrived in the country, it was not to be expected that he would receive a very hearty welcome from the Irish [servant of God]. If he was sent by [Pope] Celestine to the native Christians to be their primate or archbishop, no wonder that stouthearted Patrick refused to bow his neck to any such yoke of bondage” (Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, Killen, vol. 1, pp. 12-15, as quoted in Truth Triumphant, p. 37).
Here are excerpts from an extensive summary of Rome’s attempt to cloud the issues: “They [medieval biographers] wrote of his [Patrick’s] studying with St. Germain, and of his attending a monastery near the Mediterranean, and finally of his going to Rome and receiving ordination from the pope. All these are mere inventions, and were not put forth till more than five hundred years after St. Patrick’s death and all of them are presented without a shadow of proof…In the establishment of his Church, St. Patrick in no instance ever appealed to any foreign Church, pope or bishop. In his Epistle to Coroticus (sect. 1), he simply announces himself as bishop: ‘I, Patrick, an unlearned man, to wit, a bishop constituted in Ireland: what I am I have received from God’…These well authenticated statements of St. Patrick concerning himself are wholly at variance with those of Probus and Joscelyn, who, for the first time, put forth their fabrications full five hundred years after his death. In regard to his studying with St. Germain as Tours, and of his going to Rome for ordination, all these stories were invented in the 10th or 12th century (Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, McClintock and Strong, Vol. 7, pp. 774-775).
Another attempt to connect Patrick with Rome involved an account of legendary proportions: “Sleep came over the inhabitants of Rome, so that Patrick brought away as much as he wanted of the relics. Afterward those relics were taken to Armagh [the location of Patrick’s largest school in northern Ireland]…What was brought then was three hundred and threescore and five relics, together with the relics of Paul and Peter and Lawrence and Steven, and many others. And a sheet was there with Christ’s blood [thereon] and with the hair of Mary the Virgin” (Truth Triumphant, p. 87). Of this mythical theft, one papal writer rebuked Patrick: “O wondrous deed! O rare theft of a vast treasure of holy things, committed without sacrilege, the plunder of the most holy place in the world” (Ibid., p. 82).
Many other attributes were ascribed to Patrick in order to obscure his works. They include such accounts as his luring all the snakes out of Ireland, his illustrating the shamrock to teach the trinity (a doctrine that he never believed) and shamrocks sprouting from his body at the time of his death.
The fictitious St. Patrick has served well to hide the true identity of Patrick from the masses of humanity for many centuries. In spite of all these misleading legends, the truth about “St. Patrick” is far more fascinating than fiction.