When most people think about St. Patrick’s Day, they usually think about shamrocks, leprechauns, parades, and legions of fraternity boys intoxicated on green beer. But even the most astute cultural observers may assume it has something to do with the folk tale of an earnest fellow driving the snakes out of Ireland æons ago.
Like much of Irish history and lore, the story of a young Welshman that medieval scholars called Patricius (and the Celts called Pádraig) is clouded in myth and legend, but what is known about him is more than enough to captivate and inspire.
Born a Roman citizen in what is now known as Wales, the 16-year-old Patrick was kidnapped by pirates sometime around 400 A.D. and taken to Ireland, where he was sold into slavery. For the better part of the next six years he worked alone in the Hibernian wilderness as a shepherd, tending the flocks of his master.
Patrick, who later described himself as “headstrong and rebellious” for much of his youth, found himself with nowhere to go and little else to do but to accept his miserable circumstances for what they were. But he was not utterly without hope.
During the long lonely hours he spent out in the fields, he began to remember the instruction he’d received in his youth. Patrick’s father was a minister, as was his grandfather. Like many obstinate and foolish youths, Patrick had largely ignored the wise council of his elders.
Eventually Patrick began to pray for deliverance, not merely a physical one but a spiritual one, and would sometimes spend the entire night praying… often waking up with the prayers still on his lips. But for years, there was no answer.
Sometime in his early twenties Patrick said he suddenly received vivid dream, telling to flee from his master to a ship that would be waiting for him along the eastern shore. In a journey that can be described as nothing short of miraculous, Patrick made the entire voyage on foot through driving rain and even snowfalls without being caught or harmed. Eventually coming to the shore where, as he had dreamed, a ship bound for Britannia was waiting.
Legend says the sailor could not depart because they had been unable to find or forage for food due to bad weather but after Patrick began to pray a herd of pigs came bounding out of a thicket, providing more than enough for passage across the wild Irish Sea.
After tearful and joyous reunion with his family, Patrick followed in the family tradition of becoming a minister and began to work as a local church in the same place he’d grown up.
But this homecoming would be short-lived.
According to his own testimony of faith, it was in another dream that God spoke to Patrick and bid him return to the land of his captivity, and repel the vile pagan practices that so pervaded 5th century Ireland.
The church of that day and time had all but given up hope that a people as wild as the Celts could be salvaged. Their wild and barbarous ways terrified the Romans, who thought them to be only a little better than animals.
Patrick, by this time having attained a certain status as a cleric within the community, sold all his possessions and ventured back across the sea. Back to the land he’d known only as a slave.
The funds he’d acquired allowed him to barter an uneasy peace with the many local tribal leaders, which allowed him safe passage throughout much of the country. While often regarded warily by the Celts as an outside instigator, Patrick was able to bridge the cultural gap between the ways of the pagans and the message of the Gospel.
Yet also demonstrating an attitude of grace, in the midst of hostility, he began to endear himself to the Celtic people.
Eventually Patrick’s ministry began to sweep across the small nation, moving from village to village and clan to clan. To where the people soon embraced him as one of there own, such that this “Saint Patrick” and Ireland are culturally inseparable.
While the religious authorities back in Rome were bothered by many of Patrick’s “unorthodox” methods, none can deny his very “orthodox” understanding of the mission for all Christians.
Patrick went outside of the accepted norms of his day. For his efforts, God delivered the kingdom of Ireland into his hands.
And that is the true story of a man named Patrick.