Saint Patrick Myths and Misperceptions

They say everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, which is ironic because Saint Patrick himself was not even Irish. Very little is actually known about the life of Saint Patrick, although many myths and misperceptions persist and surface this time of year.

Much of what is known about Saint Patrick comes from two documents: his Confessio, essentially his journal which was written in Latin, and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.

Was Saint Patrick Irish?

No, Saint Patrick was actually a mix of Roman, Welsh and Briton. He was raised in the Christian faith (although he himself was not religious) and came from an upper-middle class family. He is believed to have lived on the coast of Wales or southwest Scotland. Why do scholars think this is where he lived? Because that is where he was captured at the age of 16 by a pirate named Coroticus. He was then taken to Ireland and sold into slavery. He did not speak the Irish language and found himself owned by a chieftain and herding sheep on Slemish Mountain in Country Antrim.

Did he really drive the snakes out of Ireland?

No! There is actually no evidence that snakes ever existed in Ireland. 

Did he convert the Irish to Christianity?

Yes and no. Although he is widely credited for bringing Christianity to Ireland, when Patrick arrived in Ireland in the 5th century, there were already scattered pockets of Christianity around the country. During the time he was a slave herding sheep, he was miserable, missing his family and not speaking the language. It is said that one cold, wet day when he was lost and could not find all of his animals, in desperation he began to pray. He felt he was “heard” and felt a sense of peace and comfort. He relayed this to his fellow slaves, and after their initial doubt, they became his first “converts” to Christianity.

After six years, Patrick was able to escape captivity and return to his family. Although happy to be reunited with them, he was restless and felt called by God to return to Ireland to finish his teachings. Patrick found himself back in the north of Ireland on the land of a farmer named Dichu. Despite Dichu not being a believer (though his wife was), he gave Patrick an old barn in which to establish his first church. The ancient Irish word for barn is “saul” and there is still a church just outside of Downpatrick in Northern Ireland called Saul Church. It stands on the site of Saint Patrick’s original church.

Did he use the Shamrock to demonstrate the holy Trinity?

Possibly, and that is certainly a commonly held belief. It is said that the pagan Celts could not grasp the concept of God being three entities, yet still one God. Patrick is presumed to have plucked a shamrock from the ground and shown his followers the three leafed shamrock; that three aspects make up the Trinity, but they are all one God. 

In fact, three was already a sacred number to the Celts. They also believed in triple goddesses such as Brighid/Anu/Dana (goddesses of the light forces of childbirth, fire and poetry) and triple gods such as Macha/Banbh/Nemhain (gods of war and chaos). So it is unlikely that Saint Patrick found it necessary to use the shamrock to illustrate the holy trinity.

The shamrock, however is one of the most widely recognized symbols of Ireland. The plant was believed to have mystical powers such as standing upright to warn of an approaching storm. Now it is associated with Irish culture, as well as being a symbol of luck (not to be confused with the four-leaf clover, which although lucky, is not Irish).

A Man of Mystery

Saint Patrick’s life is shrouded in mystery. We have projected many of our beliefs onto this man who lived so long ago. The Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, County Down, Northern Ireland is the only exhibition in the world devoted to the life and lessons of Saint Patrick. In the grounds of the center is the grave of Saint Patrick, who is buried with St. Brigid and St. Columcille, the other two patron saints of Ireland. For more information, visit www.saintpatrickcentre.com.