The story of Saint Patrick

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With Ireland’s patron saint’s celebration around the corner, we bring you the story on the man behind the myth.

Kilbennan_St._Benin's_Church_Window_St._Patrick_Detail_2010_09_16
St Patrick as depicted on St. Benin’s Church Window, Kilbennan. Photo: Andreas F. Borchert/Creative Commons

St Patrick was a 5th century missionary who arrived in Ireland in the second half of the century to spread the word of Christianity, making his roots in Northern Ireland in County Armagh and County Down.

Born circa 385 in England, to a father who was a deacon and a mother who was supposedly related to St Martin of Tours, despite his holy connections, St Patrick is not thought to have had a particularly zealous religious upbringing.

When he was 16 years old he was captured by Irish bandits and sold into slavery in County Antrim where he remained in captivity for six years, tending sheep in the Slemish mountains. According to folklore he saw this time as God’s way of testing his faith and he soon became devoted to Christianity.

Around 408, St Patrick is said to have had a dream in which he escaped slavery and returned to England and upon waking he decided to make this dream a reality. He escaped his captors and convinced some sailors to let him travel on their ship, but according to one interpretation of the tale he and the rest of the crew had to abandon ship in France, and St Patrick then wandered lost for 28 days and 200 miles.

After being reunited with his family back in England, Patrick returned to France, this time Auxerre, where he entered the priesthood under the leadership of St Germain.

Around the year 431, St Patrick was sent back to Ireland on the instruction of Pope St Celestine I with the aim of introducing Christianity to the country, something he had vowed to do since his days in captivity. He initially aimed for the coast of Antrim but strong currents swept his boat through Strangford Lough and he landed in County Down instead.

Although initially treated with hostility, he persevered, even using the three leaves of the shamrock to teach about the Holy Trinity, but it is unclear where the myth of him banishing snakes from Ireland originated as it is widely accepted that there never were any snakes in Ireland.

Patrick is said to have died in Downpatrick on 17 March 461 and he was buried in the graveyard of the town’s modest church – you can still visit his grave today – and Downpatrick is also home to the only permanent exhibition in the world about Saint Patrick.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that St Patrick’s Day was made an official feast day though, and over the centuries it has grown into one of the biggest celebrations in the international calendar.

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