Coming up on March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, a day for those of Irish descent to show their national pride. When thinking of St. Patrick’s Day, one normally imagines leprechauns and pots of gold, or finding a four-leaf clover for good luck. But for this article I’ll be focusing on St. Patrick, the man himself, around whom truth and myth have woven together to create the story of this saint who made his mark on Irish history.
To find out who St. Patrick really was, I searched the MNSU Library Catalog online, at lib.mnsu.edu. I came across a short film that I could access online called St. Patrick: Apostle of Ireland. I clicked the link to Kanopy, which is a site where MNSU students can watch movies and documentaries for free with their StarID information. To find Kanopy from the lib.mnsu.edu website, click on “Article Databases A–Z” along the left hand side, click on the letter “K.” Kanopy Streaming Video should be the first option.
From watching the film, I learned that the only remaining documents written by St. Patrick are the “Confession” and the “Letter to Coroticus,” which are the sources from which scholars have gathered information about his life. Patrick was born during the fall of the Roman Empire in what is now Britain. When he was about 16 years old, he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland, which was populated by the Druids, who worshipped many gods. Patrick was baptized a Christian but paid little attention to Christianity until his time as a slave, during which he turned toward religion in his search for the meaning of life.
After six years, Patrick was able to flee from captivity and return to his home country. Although he intended never to leave home again, he felt called back to Ireland to evangelize to the Druids. As a bishop, this missionary activity met with criticism due to the expectation that he would stay within the diocese. He wrote the “Confession” in response to show the people that it was divine providence that he leave for Ireland. He worked to convert the Irish people without use of violence or bloodshed.
The Druids would light a bonfire on one of their feast days using cattle bones. The Christian feast of Easter was celebrated around the same time, so before the Druids could start their bonfire, Patrick lit an Easter fire on a hill. It was then that Christianity, the new religion, met Druidry, the old religion, which had survived for nearly 2,000 years. Many awesome legends abound surrounding this encounter: one of these is that the Druids summoned snow down upon the plains, and Patrick was able make the snow disappear when the Druid leader could not (or vice versa, depending on who the storyteller sided with).
Another legend says that Patrick walked up a mountain whose summit only the Druids could reach, and while he walked, demons came to him in the form of black birds, which represented the demons of life within himself that he struggled with. He banished the birds to a cave. On the top of the mountain he met Pride, the mother of the devil, in the form of a serpent. He wrestled with the serpent, wounded it, and banished it to a lake, but he could not kill it.
According to the documentary, “He must have realized [after conquering Pride] that he was a servant of the mystery, not a master of the future.” Pilgrims have been climbing this mountain for hundreds of thousands of years, at first to complete pagan pilgrimages, but most recently to honor St. Patrick and to swallow their own pride.
St. Patrick died on March 17, allegedly at the age of 120.