St. Patrick’s Day has arrived, and while people will celebrate with food, decorations and even rivers in various shades of green, many aren’t well versed on the holiday’s namesake. As Irish-American Heritage Month continues—the result of a proclamation by President Biden earlier this year—we might wonder what mythology surrounding the figure of St. Patrick is true, and why there’s an annual global celebration for him in the first place.
To learn more, The Daily sat down with Paul Iversen, an associate professor and chair of Case Western Reserve University’s Department of Classics. Iversen’s research interests and publications are in the areas of Greek and Latin epigraphy, Hellenistic culture and society, and Greco-Roman new comedy.
“As it turns out, all of the reliable information about [St. Patrick] comes from two of his own writings—his Confession (Conf.) and his Epistle to the Soldiers of Coroticus (Epist.),” he explained. “Both works were written in a rather rustic form of Latin from the fifth century AD and survive in manuscripts dating between the 9th and 17th century of our era.”
Read on to discover Iversen’s take on what you might not know about St. Patrick, the primary patron saint of Ireland.
1. St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain, and was the son of Calpornius.
From the opening of his Confession (Conf. 1), which he wrote at the end of his life (Conf. 62),we learn that he was born in Roman Britain the son of Calpornius, who was a deacon in the Christian church. Elsewhere (Epist. 10) we learn he was “born free, the son of a decurion father.” Decuriones were members of the local city government in the Roman empire— basically the equivalent of local Roman senators—and were drawn from the class (ordo) of curiales, the upper middle class elite of the town.
They functioned as the local arm of the Roman government, and as such were the most powerful political and religious figures in their communities, holding sway over plumb public contracts, entertainment and religious rites and offices. Although [St. Patrick] frequently self-deprecates (Conf. 1; 9; 11-13; Epist. 1) about his own upbringing and learning (referring to himself as rusticissimus and indoctus—a simple country boy and unlearned), nevertheless it is clear he received an adequate education.
2. St. Patrick was either captured by slavers and taken to Ireland—or he went willingly as a fugitive.
We also learn (Conf. 1) that he and his father lived on a modest country estate (villula) not far from Bannavem Taburniae (place unknown, but probably toward the west coast of Britain), the town where his grandfather Potitus—who was a priest—lived. It was at his father’s country estate that about the age of 16 he was captured by slavers who hauled him off to Ireland (Hibernia), although elsewhere (Conf. 27) we learn that at about the age of 15 he had committed some serious crime in one hour of weakness, and it may be that originally he went willingly as a fugitive of the law.
3. When St. Patrick returned to Britain, he became a deacon and a bishop.
While in Ireland, where he served a master as a shepherd for six years, he had a kind of conversion experience and began to pray fervently to God everyday (Conf. 16; 33). Then one night, he claims, in his sleep God told him a ship would take him back home (Conf. 17), he ran away and made his way to the coast, and was given safe passage on a ship back to Britain (Conf. 18), where after various wanderings and trials, he rejoined his family (Conf. 19-23) and eventually became a deacon (Conf. 26) and a bishop (Conf. 26; 32). During this time back in Britain he also claims (Conf. 23) one night he had a dream where a man named Victoricus handed him a letter that was “the voice of the Irish people” who begged him “to come and walk among us.”
While a bishop he apparently confessed to a close friend—the same friend who broke the news to him that he was elected as a bishop—the serious deed he committed when he was 15, and eventually when he was about 45 years of age this friend betrayed this secret to the Church authorities, which led him to be tried (Conf. 27, 32), but once again he fled back to Ireland to escape the law (Conf. 32) and was tried in absentia.
4. In Ireland St. Patrick converted many to Christianity.
In Ireland he was once again established as a bishop (Epist. 1), where he converted many to Christianity. There at one baptism ceremony, the soldiers of one Coroticus— apparently a local warlord identified by later sources as Ceretic Guletic king of Alt Clut—descended upon the converts and slayed many of them in their robes, took their goods, and carried many of them off as slaves (Epist. 3). Some of these soldiers were Christians, so Patrick wrote his Epistle to them with a plea to return the captives and their goods.
As a part of this, he appealed to their nationalistic sense of decency by claiming (Epist. 2) their behavior was no better than the “apostate Scots and Picts,” the latter a group of marauders who lived in what is now northern and eastern Scotland. In addition, many of his converts were women of noble birth whose fathers did not appreciate his proselytizing (Conf. 41-42), so he was persecuted and apparently charged with taking too many gifts (Conf. 49-50), but rather than return to Britain, as he wished to do but where he faced certain conviction (Conf. 43), he decided instead to face his accusers in Ireland.
5. Irish emigrants transformed his day into a celebration of all things Irish.
His Confession, therefore, was a kind of autobiography and self-defense against his accusers that detailed how he was an imperfect, but faithful, servant of God. Contrary to popular belief, however, it does not mention shamrocks, snakes, druids, paschal fires, or the founding of any church site. These legends would all grow up later when he was elevated as the Patron Saint of Ireland.
Tradition states he died on March 17 (in various years in the fifth century AD), and Ireland came to observe his day with religious services and feasts, but it was primarily Irish emigrants to the United States that transformed his day into one of revelry and celebration of all things Irish.