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Saint Patrick – A History

Saint Patrick – A History – Saint Patrick – A History – Craig O Reilly tells us a bit about the real man and some of the more obscure myths about him
Saint Patrick is a patron Saint of Ireland; a complex figure linked to both the establishment of the Church in this country, and Irish mythology itself. As celebrations take place, and we watch on T.V flotillas of the Saint driving the snakes out of Ireland, it’s worth asking who the real Patrick was. Why is he so important in the story of Ireland?

Myths And Legends
The actual Saint Patrick has very little documentation about him. He emerges in a time where history is still deeply linked to mythology. In fact, for many years writers had doubts Patrick was a real person at all. This was partly due to legends in which he is portrayed as performing miracles and converting Irish figures to Christianity.

In the story of the Children of Lír, where four children are cursed by their stepmother to wander the Earth in the shape of swans for a period of three hundred years. In this story, Patrick lifts their curse using the power of a bell. Even now, the bell of Armagh is associated with Saint Patrick. It was said to have been buried with him and is 1400 years old.
This is only one of the miraculous tales where Patrick shows up. He also speaks with Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s son Oisín after the heroes return from the land of Tír Na Nóg.
He is also said to have banished the snake from Ireland, though this has been interpreted as him turning Irish people away from paganism. Many stories like this surround him.

The Real Patrick

The main source of historical proof we have of his life is a document written by Patrick himself. His “confession” was transcribed into The Book of Armagh from a very old piece of writing. In some of the oldest Irish texts on Christianity the confession Patrick starts with a description of himself:
“My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.”

Far from the image of Patrick as this powerful proud figure, the depiction of him here is one of a humble man. Part of the reason the confession is considered authentic is in because of its plainness. It does not contain accounts of miracles which were written about after, and the language used is old Latin.

It’s here we find the familiar story many of us will have learned at school, of how Patrick was taken to Ireland as a slave. As he worked every day tending sheep, he began to pray, and because of this he was delivered from bondage:
“It was there one night in my sleep that I heard a voice saying to me: “You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country.” It was in the strength of God that I went, God who turned the direction of my life to good; I feared nothing while I was on the journey to that ship.”

Later that same voice led him back to Ireland to start his ministry. We don’t know much about Patrick’s mission, but he tells us he baptised thousands.

Ireland Before And After Patrick

He describes there being idolatry as part of the pagan religion in Ireland. Most likely this would have been the veneration of wells and rivers, as well as pillars and tombs which were ancient even in for Patrick and the Ireland he lived in at that time. Strangely, many wells today will be named Patrick’s well and so on; where he would banish the demon and proclaim it a Christian site. Again, we are dealing with legends, but often wherever the people of Ireland are represented in myths and legends as converting to Christianity, it seems to be Patrick who acts as a bridge of sorts between the old religion and the new.

It’s this blend of Myth and history which seems to have made him such a central figure to Irish imagination and identity. We will probably see both on full display at the parades taking place on Patricks Day this week.

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