St. Patrick: The Christian legacy behind the legend

As an immigrant to the United States, I had never heard of St. Patrick’s Day until my music teacher told me she was wearing green in his honor.

I shrugged it off at the time as just another strange American tradition (ironically since it’s Irish in origin!). Many years later, however, I learned his story.

Patrick was born around 400 A.D. in what is now Great Britain. After being kidnapped by slave traders, he was forced to endure six years of slavery in Ireland before making a miraculous escape. However, he chose to return to the Irish people of his own free will to preach the Gospel to those who had formerly enslaved him.

For parents especially, St. Patrick’s Day offers yet another opportunity to introduce our children to the rich Christian history all around us – if we just know where to look.

From slavery to freedom

Much of the available information we have about St. Patrick comes from Confessio, his book that survived in several medieval manuscripts. Some scholars believe his birth name was Maewyn Succat.

He was born to Calpurnius, a deacon from a noble Roman family. Although Patrick grew up surrounded by Christians, he admitted later that he was far from spiritually mature in his childhood. “At that time, I did not know the true God,” he wrote in Confessio.

While he was still a teenager, Irish pirates captured him and brought him to Ireland, where he was sold as a slave to care for sheep. Milchu, his master, was a high priest in the Celtic religion of Druidism.

Patrick began to pray frequently while in captivity, finding comfort in the faith of his youth.

“It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith,” he wrote. “Even though it came about late, I recognised my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance.”

One night in his sleep, Patrick heard a voice predicting that he would return soon to his native country. Later he heard another voice saying to him, “Look – your ship is ready.” He made good his escape to find some sailors, whom he ultimately persuaded to let him board their ship.

After a long and arduous journey, Patrick finally made it home to his parents, who were understandably overjoyed to see him.

They welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again,” he wrote.

Patrick, however, could not forget those who had enslaved him. He recounted a night vision where he saw a man coming from Ireland with innumerable letters, all representing “the voice of the Irish people.”

“While I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea,” he wrote.

“They called out as it were with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.’ This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up then.”

Patrick’s later ministry

After Patrick decided to return to Ireland, he began a ministry that lasted 29 years. According to some accounts, he baptized more than 120,000 Irish people and planted 300 churches.

“Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things,” he wrote. “But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!”

Patrick also spoke passionately against slavery, perhaps drawing from his own experience, and after his death the Irish people stopped their slave-trading practices altogether.

One book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, explores this in more depth:

“The papacy did not condemn slavery as immoral until the end of the 19th century, but here is Patrick in the 5th century seeing it for what it is … Elsewhere he lauds the strength and courage of Irish women: ‘But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most—and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.'”

Literary heritage

Cahill also argues in his book that the Irish helped preserve the Judeo-Christian literary heritage, largely through Patrick’s ministry.

Patrick made his return journey to Ireland years before Rome fell to the invading Vandals and Visigoths.

Because Irish monks later transcribed many Greek, Latin and Roman ancient manuscripts by hand, documents that would have been lost through the burning of Rome remain accessible to us today.

“The Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of Western literature – everything they could lay their hands on,” Cahill writes.

“These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable.”

We might not know very much about St. Patrick today without the Irish Potato Famine or “Great Hunger,” which forced 2 million people to leave Ireland in the 1840s.

Many of them settled in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, bringing the holiday with them – and educating others about St. Patrick’s legacy, including me!

This Patrick’s Day, consider sharing some of the following resources with your family:

  1. Torchlighters video series: St. Patrick. An engaging, animated cartoon format suitable for elementary- and middle-school children. Some very young children (0-5 years) may find the images frightening.
  2. Trailblazers – “Patrick of Ireland: The Boy Who Forgave” by K.C. Murdarasi.
  3. Prayers That Changed History” by Tricia Goyer. Patrick is one of 25 notable people featured in this book who used the power of prayer to change their world.