Saint Patrick: The Man Behind the Legends
A few years ago, I wrote this piece as a summary of St. Patrick. His dramatic story inspires us still!
St. Patrick lived in fourth-century Briton, and his home was probably on the west coast of modern-day England. His grandfather was a priest (in the days before priestly celibacy) and his father was a deacon in the church.
At the age of sixteen, Patrick was captured by slave traders and sold to a slave owner in Ireland. There, for six long years, he labored in the woods and pastures of Foclut near the Western Sea where tended sheep. At first, Patrick, traumatized by his capture, sank into deep misery. But in time, his faith, which had been shallow as a child, grew and deepened. He prayed night and day, a hundred times a day and long into the night. Then he had a dream that a ship was ready to take him back to Briton. He likely escaped during the summer months, making his way through the forests and bogs of Ireland, trying to hide his slave torc, the gold ring around his neck, as well as his foreign accent. Indeed, when he made it to the coast, his ship was ready, and after a little convincing, he climbed aboard and headed back home.
Back in Briton, Patrick decided to study for the priesthood. But he had missed important years of his education. Late in life, he still regretted missing those formative years and lamented about how poor his Latin was.
But Patrick did not become bitter about his years of slavery. Instead, he had another dream. In this one, the Irish begged him to come back to them. Surprisingly, Patrick decided to do just that—return to the land of his captivity to bring the good news of Jesus to the Irish people.
Many years later, after becoming a priest and then finally a bishop, Patrick’s dream to return to Ireland was realized. He returned to the land of druids who still performed human sacrifice. He returned to the land which was poor and uncivilized (unlike his Romanized Briton). He returned to the land which at that time was considered “the ends of the earth.” He returned to the land where he was a slave.
Unlike the legends, he did not drive snakes from Ireland. He did not find pots of gold or leprechauns. But he did bring the message of salvation through Christ to a people lost in sin and darkness.
Did Patrick explain the concept of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—with a shamrock? Perhaps. It’s not known for certain. But what we do know by letters that Patrick himself penned is that he believed, confessed, and preached about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that that Irish people clung to this message of salvation.
In that time, when Roman civilization was crumbling, many people believed that the end of the world was near. So Patrick took the message of the Christian faith with urgency to Ireland, and God blessed his work.
In the years after Christianity spread in Ireland, the country was transformed. As Thomas Cahill writes, “Ireland became a Christian culture, where slavery and human sacrifice became unthinkable, and warfare, though impossible for humans to eradicate, diminished markedly.” Slavery and human sacrifice was all but eradicated, women began to have more status in society, and monasteries became centers of learning.
That one man—a former slave—could have accomplished all this is remarkable. But it wasn’t one man who had achieved so much. It was a gracious God who blessed the humble efforts of a man whose message of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness and mercy of God transformed history.
- Patrick’s own writings: Confessio and Letter to Coroticus (The Confession of Saint Patrick, translated by John Skinner, foreword by John O’Donohue; Image Books, Doubleday, 1998.)
- St. Patrick of Ireland by Philip Freeman, Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, Doubleday, 1995.
Irish Lamb Stew (adapated from All Recipes)
8 slices pre-cooked bacon
1 – 1/2 lamb stew meat
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup water
2 cups beef stock
2 teaspoons white sugar
2 cups diced carrots
1 large onions, cut into bite-size pieces
2 potatoes, peeled and diced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
- Place bacon in a large, deep skillet. Cook over medium high heat until evenly brown. Drain, crumble, and set aside.
- Put lamb, salt, pepper, and flour in large mixing bowl. Toss to coat meat evenly. Brown meat in frying pan with bacon fat.
- Place meat into stock pot (leave 1/4 cup of fat in frying pan). Add the garlic and yellow onion and saute till onion begins to become golden. Deglaze frying pan with 1/2 cup water and add the garlic-onion mixture to the stock pot with bacon pieces, beef stock, and sugar. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
- Add carrots, onions, potatoes, thyme, bay leaves, and wine to pot. Reduce heat, and simmer covered for 20 minutes until vegetables are tender.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!