It seems like ages since St. Patrick’s Day and well it kind of is. It was early March 2019 when the Covid lockdowns began and that years St. Patrick’s festivities were among the first to fall. So fast forward two years and here we are again except this time with plenty to be grateful for. 
So with our favourite day of the year just about to arrive in some parts of the world Irish-American writer Kevin Rooney takes us through the life of Ireland’s patron saint.
Much of St. Patrick’s life is still mysterious and it’s sometimes difficult to separate fact from legend. According to several sources, St. Patrick was born in Roman-occupied Britain; in what is now Wales around the end of the 4th century, and his birth name was Maewyn Succat. His father Calpurnius was a deacon. His mother Conchessa was said to have been a relative of St. Martin of Tours. His parents were both from influential Roman families among those who had brought the Christian faith to Britain. Despite his background, he was not religious or well educated in the Christian faith as a child. His first language also seems to have been a Celtic language rather than Latin.
At the age of 16, he was captured by pirates and brought to Ireland as a slave, during which time he learned the Irish language and became familiar with Irish customs. The Irish were pagans, worshipping spirits of nature and many Gods. He is said to have toiled as a shepherd on Slemish Mountain in Co. Antrim for 6 years. During this time, he prayed fervently and grew in Christian faith and understanding. One night, he was guided by a voice in a dream to escape; and was told a ship was waiting for him. He walked over 200 miles and boarded a ship. He escaped to France and studied for the priesthood. He was driven by a vision of the Irish people asking him to return, to teach them about the one God. He was ordained as a bishop and was sent to Ireland.

Portrait of Saint Patrick by Jim FitzPatrick

Patricius is the name he gave to himself; in Irish – Pádraig, Patrick in English. It appears to mean “noble”, but is said also to mean “father” as in patriarch. In his “Confessio” he writes of himself with great humility: “I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.” He believed his abduction and time of slavery was a deserved punishment for his ignorance of God’s teaching and commandments. St. Patrick is credited with doing more than anyone to convert the Irish to Christianity. He is supposed to have built about 300 churches and baptized 120,000 people. He is said to have used the three-leaf shamrock to symbolize and explain the Holy Trinity; which is why that symbol is closely associated with him. He is also said to have adapted an ancient symbol of the sun into the Christian symbol now known as the Celtic cross. Perhaps his most famous legend has him driving all the snakes out of Ireland. Some scholars argue this is thought to represent his purge of the influence of the pagan ways and druids’ teaching, rather than taken literally.

Patrick also fasted for the 40 days of Lent atop the mountain in Co. Mayo known ever since as Croagh Patrick (Patrick’s stack). At the end of his fast, an angel appeared to tell him all his petitions for the Irish people would be granted; that they would retain their Christian faith until Judgement Day. On the last Sunday in July, called “Reek Sunday”; pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick (sometimes barefoot) and attend a church at the summit. Also in Co. Mayo is Downpatrick Head, which means “Patrick’s Fortress” where he built a church.
There are stories of pagan enemies wishing to harm him, particularly druids (priests of the ancient religion). His weapons were faith and prayer. He went with several monks to Slane in Co. Meath, near Tara. It was the seat of Laoghaire, the High King of Ireland. He intended to light a paschal fire to celebrate Easter. The druids are said to have made a prophecy to King Laoghaire that once lit, this fire would burn forever; symbolizing the permanence of the Christian faith in Ireland. They were determined to stop him. He and his followers chanted a recitation called St. Patrick’s Breastplate, which included:
“Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.”
His would-be assailants didn’t see St. Patrick and his followers, but instead saw a wild deer followed by fawns. This prayer is also known as “The Deer’s Cry”. Laoghaire decided to let Patrick continue to preach and convert, after being impressed with his courage and eloquence. He died on March 17 in 493, which is why his feast is celebrated on that date. He is buried in Downpatrick, Co. Down. His feast day has become not only a solemn religious observance in Ireland, but also a celebration of Irish heritage and culture all over the world.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh! – St. Patrick’s Day blessing upon you

(/ban-ock-tee na fay-lah paw-rig ur-iv/)

Our thanks go out to Kevin Rooney for this fascinating article. You can hear more from Kevin over at the Irish History 1916 through to 1923 and Everything Irish Facebook pages where he is an admin. Kevin also contributed to the Happy Birthday Mr Bob book, a celebration of Bob Dylan’s 80th Birthday, with submissions from Irish poets, writers, singers, songwriters, artists, photographers and an eclectic mix of admirers! Kevin is an excellent writer and earlier in the year we published Irish Born And Irish Americans : Separated By Common Heritage? about the sometimes troublesome relationship between the two.


St. Paddy’s day, here we go again. 

Rising with his prayer, 
Christ is here, Christ is there 
Patrick says he’s everywhere. 
 Of course the day in Lent falling, 
For what is Irish laughter peeling 
Bodhran beating, fiddles reeling 
Without a Catholic nagging feeling? 
 We are an Easter people rising. 
If you prick us are we not bleeding?
If you jest are we not laughing? 
And in our collective memory crying? 
Bleeding, laughing, crying,   
Lilly wearing, martyr remembering, 
Living life afull then dying. 
We are an Easter people rising.
We are an Easter people rising.
Stephen Francis Bourke

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