Birth and Captivity
It is believed that St Patrick was born in the year 387 AD. Patrick himself said that he was a native of Roman Britain, the son of Calpurnius and Conchessa, who lived in the village of Bannaven Taberniae, scholars are still debating the exact location of this village. His father belonged to a Roman family of high rank and held the office of decurio in Britain. Conchessa was a near relative of the great patron of Gaul, St. Martin of Tours. In his sixteenth year, Patrick was carried off into captivity by Irish marauders and was sold as a slave, where for six years he tended his master’s flocks. During his six years in captivity, Patrick grew much more religious, which he relates in his confessio, “the love of God and His fear increased in me more and more, and the faith grew in me, and the spirit was roused, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same, so that whilst in the woods and on the mountain, even before the dawn, I was roused to prayer and felt no hurt from it, whether there was snow or ice or rain; nor was there any slothfulness in me, such as I see now, because the spirit was then fervent within me.” In addition, during his captivity he became versed in the Celtic tongue and he became familiar with all the details of Druidism, which was being practiced in ancient Ireland.
Return to Britain and Vision
After being a slave in Ireland for six years, Patrick attempted to escape. He stowed away on a boat bound for Britain, after some rebuffs he was allowed on board. The boat took Patrick back to Britain and his family, however Patrick was now set on becoming a priest. Not long after his return home Patrick claims he was struck by a vision, “I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people…and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” The vision inspired him to begin his religious training and tradition holds that he went to Gaul to study under St. Germanus, the bishop of Auxerre, although Patrick himself never makes this claim.
Return to Ireland
It is generally agreed that Patrick arrived in Ireland in 433 AD as a bishop. One legend says that shortly after his arrival he met a chieftain of one of the tribes, Dichu, who drew his sword to smite Patrick, but his arm became rigid as a statue and continued so until he declared himself obedient to Patrick. Therefore Patrick converted the chieftain Dichu to Christianity. Patrick himself claims that he “baptized thousands of people and ordained clerics everywhere and rejoiced to see the flock of the Lord in Ireland growing splendidly” while in Ireland; however, he also says that the local population of Ireland was hostile and occasionally attacked him. Nevertheless, it seems that his deeds had a great effect and large part of Ireland, most likely the Northern or Western parts of Ireland, was converted to Christianity without the shedding of martyrs’ blood. Tradition holds that Patrick died on March 17th, 493 AD and by the seventh century AD he was already the patron saint of Ireland.
There are many myths and legends that surround the history of saint Patrick and indeed make up most of the man we know today. Saint Patrick himself was of course not Irish, his parents were both of
Romano-British origins. It is extremely unlikely that Patrick was the first to bring Christianity to Ireland; there is evidence for earlier contact with the Irish by the Romans and Christianity (Palladius being sent to Ireland around 430 AD). Patrick did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, the Ice Age took care of that, however it is likely that the snakes may represent the “evil” pagans that Patrick converted.
Most of what we know about Saint Patrick is based on hagiographies from the seventh century, which makes most of the fact surrounding the life of Patrick quite dubious. There is also a theory that the details of Patrick’s life is based on two separate Patricks who lived around the same time: a certain Palladius was sent to Ireland as a bishop in 431 AD. According to scholars, Palladius was active in Ireland until the 460s. It seems likely that the actions of Palladius were attributed to Patrick. Nevertheless, the traditional interpretation of the life of saint Patrick holds firm.