Christian History Home > Issue 60 > Patrick the Saint
Patrick the Saint
Behind the fanciful legends of the fifth-century British missionary stands a man worthy of embellishment.
A fleet of 50 currachs (longboats) weaved its way toward the shore, where a young Roman Brit and his family walked. His name was Patricius, the 16-year-old son of a civil magistrate and tax collector. He had heard stories of Irish raiders who captured slaves and took them "to the ends of the world," and as he studied the longboats, he no doubt began imagining the worst.
With no Roman army to protect them (Roman legions had long since deserted Britain to protect Rome from barbarian invasions), Patricius and his town were unprepared for attack. The Irish warriors, wearing helmets and armed with spears, descended on the pebbled beach. The braying war horns struck terror into Patricius's heart, and he started to run toward town.
The warriors quickly demolished the village, and as Patricius darted among burning houses and screaming women, he was caught. The barbarians dragged him aboard a boat bound for the east coast of Ireland.
Patricius, better known as Patrick, is remembered today as the saint who drove the snakes out of Ireland, the teacher who used the shamrock to explain the Trinity, and the namesake of annual parades in New York and Boston. What is less well-known is that Patrick was a humble missionary (this saint regularly referred to himself as "a sinner") of enormous courage. When he evangelized Ireland, he set in motion a series of events that impacted all of Europe. It all started when he was carried off into slavery around 430.
Escape from sin and slavery
Patrick was sold to a cruel warrior chief, whose opponents' heads sat atop sharp poles around his palisade in Northern Ireland. While Patrick minded his master's pigs in the nearby hills, he lived like an animal himself, enduring long bouts of hunger and thirst. Worst of all, he was isolated from other human beings for months at a time. Early missionaries to Britain had left a legacy of Christianity that young Patrick was exposed to and took with him into captivity. He had been a nominal Christian to this point; he now turned to the Christian God of his fathers for comfort.
"I would pray constantly during the daylight hours," he later recalled. "The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more. And faith grew. And the spirit roused so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less."
On The Mountain. Legend holds that Patrick rang a large bell (held in a reliquary, at the National Museum of Ireland) on the top of Eagle Mountain, now called Croagh Patrick. Depending on the legend, the bell scared away either Ireland's snakes or its demons. Patrick's other relic, a staff supposedly given to him by Jesus, was burned as an object of superstition in 1538.
After six years of slavery, Patrick received a supernatural message. "You do well to fast," a mysterious voice said to him. "Soon you will return to your homeland."
Before long, the voice spoke again: "Come and see, your ship is waiting for you." So Patrick fled and ran 200 miles to a southeastern harbor. There he boarded a ship of traders, probably carrying Irish wolfhounds to the European continent.
After a three-day journey, the men landed in Gaul (modern France), where they found only devastation. Goths or Vandals had so decimated the land that no food was to be found in the once fertile area.
"What have you to say for yourself, Christian?" the ship's captain taunted. "You boast that your God is all powerful. We're starving to death, and we may not survive to see another soul."
Patrick answered confidently. "Nothing is impossible to God. Turn to him and he will send us food for our journey."
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