Perhaps you’ve noticed the Celtic cross in my logo. It’s a reference to both my Savior and my ancestry. I’m mostly Irish (with a little German thrown in, courtesy of my paternal grandmother).
Growing up in an Irish Catholic home, St. Patrick’s Day was always a big deal to us. No, I’m not talking about beer– that wasn’t part of our family tradition. But March 17th meant wearing green, and eating corned beef and cabbage with boiled potatoes and Irish sodabread. (I don’t even like cabbage much, but the holiday just wouldn’t be the same without it.) Twice a year, on Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day, the menu was set in stone.
When I asked my mom who St. Patrick was, she said he was the saint who drove all the snakes out of Ireland. But that’s all she knew about him.
And for a long time, that’s all I knew about him, too. Then one day I decided to do some research– and what I found shocked me.
There’s a lot more to St. Patrick than snakes. In fact, that story is just a legend.
The real story of St. Patrick is much more interesting.
The Shocking Truth
The biggest shock for me was discovering that Patrick wasn’t even Irish!
His full name was Patricius Magonus Sucatus, and he was born in a little village called Bannavem Taburniae on the northern coast of England.
Yup. St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was English. Not Irish.
His grandfather was a Catholic priest, and as a boy Patrick spent many hours listening to him tell stories from the Bible. He learned about Christ at an early age and went to Mass every Sunday. But it was just a family tradition for him (like eating corned beef and cabbage).
The second shocking thing I discovered was Irish pirates.
Yes, you read that right. Irish pirates.
At that time, Irish pirates were a real scourge for Britain. They would sail up and down the coast, killing and stealing and kidnapping.
And one day, when Patrick was sixteen, pirates raided his village of Bannavem Taburniae. He saw his mother and father lying face down in the dirt, and didn’t know if they were alive or dead. He saw their farmhouse burned to the ground. And Patrick himself was captured and brought to the ships with about one hundred other prisoners.
The pirate ships returned to Ireland, where the prisoners were sold as slaves.
Patrick was sold to a tribal chieftain named Miliuc, from northern Ireland. Miliuc was a rich and powerful man, with a large house, lots of livestock, and many dogs and slaves. He had a well-deserved reputation as a cruel master.
Miliuc was a Druid, a high ranking class in Celtic culture. The Druids were leaders who were both highly respected and greatly feared. They engaged in secretive pagan rituals which included human sacrifice. Greek and Roman writers reported that those who were sacrificed were usually criminals found guilty of theft or other offenses. But when there was a shortage of crooks, innocent victims were also acceptable. The Irish people lived in constant fear of the Druids, for their authority was absolute.
After spending a night chained with the dogs (they were fed, he was not), Patrick was sent to a distant field to watch over a herd of pigs. He was given only a flint to make a fire with; the other slaves showed him how to find acorns and worms to eat. He was given no provisions. He slept with the dogs for warmth, and a small cave was his only shelter from the storms. Miliuc warned him not to try escaping, or he would be hunted down and killed.
Enslaved in Ireland
For the next six years Patrick lived a bleak existence out in the fields with the pigs and a few dogs. Occasionally he would see another slave, and sometimes they would invite him to the Druid meetings in the forest, but Patrick refused to go with them.
Most of the time, though, Patrick was alone. Life dragged by with a dreary monotony. He began to recite to himself the Bible stories his grandfather told him, and he spent more and more time praying to the one true God that the Druids denied. As the years slowly passed, God became more and more real to him, and Patrick gave his heart to the Lord.
One night Patrick had a dream in which he saw a harbor that he did not recognize. In the harbor was a ship, and Patrick heard a voice telling him, “You will soon return to your own country.”
When Patrick awoke, he prayed and asked for God’s guidance. Then he set off to find this unknown harbor. It was a long and dangerous journey, but after traveling two hundred miles to the south, Patrick found the harbor, just as it had appeared in his dream. There was indeed a ship there– but the captain refused to take Patrick aboard.
Patrick had nowhere to go. He couldn’t go back because Miliuc would have discovered his escape by now. Again Patrick prayed for God’s direction. His prayers were interrupted by a sailor who told him the captain had suddenly changed his mind.
Patrick eagerly boarded the ship, only to discover that it was headed for France, not England. To make matters worse, the ship was caught in a violent tempest and sank just off the coast of France. Patrick managed to make it to shore, where he was taken in by the monks of a nearby monastery. He spent several years there studying for the priesthood before finally making his way back to England.
Happily Ever After?
Upon his arrival, he was overjoyed to learn that his parents had only been wounded in the raid. Patrick’s beloved grandfather had died during the years that Patrick had been enslaved. He left his entire estate to him, and Patrick discovered that he was now a wealthy landowner.
Hooray for happy endings! Except…this was only the beginning of the story.
Now safe and comfortable at home, Patrick felt no peace. One night he had another vivid dream. He saw the faces of the people he had met in Ireland and heard their voices, pleading with him to come back and tell them about the Savior.
When he awoke, Patrick couldn’t get the dream out of his mind. He knew that God was speaking to him again, calling him to preach the gospel to the Irish. God even planted in his heart a desire to see his old slave master Miliuc to tell him about Jesus, even though he would be risking his life to do so.
Patrick’s family thought this was sheer madness. They tried to talk him out of it. Travel was difficult and dangerous, and they knew that if he departed for Ireland it was unlikely that they would ever see him again. They begged him not to go, but Patrick knew that this was God’s will. He sold all his possessions to secure passage back to Ireland.
Word spread quickly about Patrick’s return. When Miliuc learned of it, he feared that Patrick had come with an army, seeking revenge. In desperation Miliuc set fire to his house and threw himself into the flames.
The Gospel Goes Forth
Patrick was grieved to hear of Miliuc’s death. But then he learned that the Druids were preparing for a festival. During this festival, all the fires in the land were to be put out. The king was to light the first fire, which was supposed to bring good luck. The Druids would kill anyone who dared to light a fire before the king did.
When the night of the festival came, the king was about to light the fire when he saw a huge bonfire blazing on a nearby hill. The festival dissolved as everyone left to see who would dare to disobey the Druids.
When they reached the bonfire, they were astounded to find Patrick standing there. He pointed to the flames and shouted, “This fire stands for Jesus Christ, the Light of the world! Jesus said he that follows me shall not walk in darkness.”
The king was so shocked at Patrick’s boldness that he let Patrick continue to preach. That night the king’s brother, the queen, and their two sons all accepted Christ as their Savior!
Many other conversions followed. The Druids were livid, but they could not convince the king to take action against Patrick. Though the king himself never became a Christian, he allowed Patrick to preach freely. Soon Patrick was building churches and schools throughout Ireland.
As Christianity flourished and the influence of the Druids faded, they continually tried to trap and kill Patrick. Despite their efforts, more and more Irish left their pagan ways and embraced this powerful new religion. Patrick’s fame spread throughout Ireland, and so did the legends about his achievements.
The Rest of the Story
As his parents had feared, Patrick spent the rest of his life in Ireland. He wrote a Confessio or memoir which gives testimony to his incredible life. Patrick became widely known as “the Apostle of Ireland,” and died on March 17, 492 A.D. The Roman Catholic church canonized him as a saint, and he soon became accepted as the patron saint of Ireland, beloved by the Irish as one of their own.
I’m glad I discovered the truth about St. Patrick (though I’m still not quite over the shock of discovering that he wasn’t Irish). I hope you found his story as inspiring as I did. May we all listen to the Lord’s leading in our lives, and respond with the same obedience, boldness and zeal of St. Patrick!
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