St Patrick’s Day is observed by some on March 17, in commemoration of St Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, took the Christian faith to Ireland around 410AD.
As Archdeacon T.C. Hammond, staunch Protestant churchman of a past generation, said, “Every Christian who loves the Bible can look back with thankfulness to this intrepid missionary and revere his memory” (From Slave to Saint, page 11).
St Patrick’s day is celebrated by the wearing of Green, among other things. In Ireland the Green colour not only represents the nation, but symbolises the Catholic faith. The Orange colour is used by Protestants. Hence we have the Orange and the Green, Orange Marches, and so on.
Despite the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has laid claim to this man of God as one of their own, no distinctive Roman teachings are found in his writings. Neither the Mass, nor Purgatory, is mentioned. For that matter the Roman Church was not established in Ireland and Scotland until about two centuries after his death. It is interesting to note the contrast between writings of Patrick with his 340 quotations from 46 Bible books with that of Pope Gregory the Great – “liberally peppered with superstitious, unscriptural doctrines and legendary stories” (The Battle of the Celtic Church, by Peter Trumper, page 7).
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Patrick was born about 372, probably near Glasgow. His father was a Christian deacon, but that did not seem to create a particularly Christian home.
At the age of 16 he was captured by Irish pirates who attacked his father’s estate, and taken to Ireland where he spent his time in relative solitude, minding sheep. There, on a hill side, his conversion took place. “The Lord opened the understanding of my unbelief.” He later wrote, “that, late as it was, I might remember my faults and turn to the Lord my God with all my heart” (70 Great Christians, by G. Hanks, page 64).
After about six years in captivity Patrick had a dream in which he heard God tell him it was time to leave Ireland. He escaped back to Britain where he had another vision prompting him to return to Ireland as a missionary.
Patrick then spent 14 years in monastic life in Gaul (France) and a night vision that bade him return and preach the gospel in Ireland. After ordination as a priest Patrick was sent to Ireland with a dual role of ministry to the existing Christians in Ireland and evangelism of the heathen. The existence of Christians in Ireland before his arrival contradicts the widely held belief that he took Christianity there.
Patrick returned at about 410AD, and is at times confused in history with Palladius, a bishop who was sent by Pope Celestine in 431AD to be the first bishop to the Irish believers in Christ. This 431 date argues against the suggestion that Patrick went to Ireland in 432AD.
The legend of him driving out all the snakes from that island is that which typifies “his triumph of good over evil” (68 Saints of the Anglican Calendar, by S Harton, page 132). It also typifies the tendency to aggrandize heroes in the Irish verbal tradition.
It is claimed that Patrick established 365 churches and baptised 12,000 people. He trained missionaries who went forth to Scotland, Europe, “and even Iceland” (Famous Missionaries, by J Gilchrist Lawson, page 12). And his spiritual autobiographical book, Confessions, remains as a testimony to his faithful Christian service. His other surviving book is titled Epistola and is a denunciation of British mistreatment of Irish Christians.
Patrick integrated various aspects of the Irish superstition into his Christian message, to help promote its acceptance. The use of fire to celebrate deities was adopted with bonfires at Easter. The pre-existing Sun worship was accommodated by creation of the Celtic Cross with the sun superimposed on the cross.
Among Patrick’s many great missionary achievements, he confronted the Druids at Tara and abolished their pagan rites. History has it that he converted the warrior chiefs and princes, baptizing them and thousands of their subjects in the ‘Holy Wells‘ that still bear this name.
One account of Patrick’s death says he died at Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland, on March 17, 460 A.D. His jawbone was preserved in a silver shrine and often requested in times of childbirth, epileptic fits, and as a preservative against the ‘evil eye’. Another version puts Patrick’s death at Glastonbury, England, claiming he was buried there. The Chapel of St Patrick remains as part of Glastonbury Abbey.
Patrick died about 465. And you can see his “tooth” in the National Museum in Dublin! (Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem, published 1994, page 75).
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com