It was an act of defiance that changed the course of a nation. Patrick lit a fire in pagan 5th century Ireland, ushering Christianity into the country. Who was this man who became the patron saint of Ireland?
Ireland was a beautiful island shrouded in terrible darkness. Warlords and druids ruled the land. But across the sea in Britain, a teenager was poised to bring this nation to God.
“Patrick was born into a Christian family,” says Philip Freeman, author of St. Patrick of Ireland. “His father was a deacon; his grandfather a priest. But Patrick says that from an early age, he didn’t have any serious interest in religion and that he was pratically an atheist when he was a teenager.”
Around 400 A.D., Patrick was abducted from his village and thrown onto a slave ship headed for Ireland.
“He saw that as God chastising him, first of all,” says Rev. Sean Brady. “That was the first view. He says we deserved what we got. We’re carried at 16 years of age over to this foreign land.”
Patrick was sold to a chieftain named Milchu. He spent six years tending his master’s flocks on the slopes of the Slemish Mountain. Patrick recounts his time as a slave in his memoir entitled The Confession.
“He says, ‘I prayed a hundred times in the day and almost as many at night,’ ” says Rev. Brady, the Roman Catholic Archbiship of Armagh and Primate of All of Ireland. “Through that experience of prayer and trial, he came to know another God — God the Father, who was his protector. He came to know Jesus Christ in those sufferings, and he came to be united with Christ and he came to identify with Christ, and then of course, also the Holy Spirit.”
One night during a time of prayer and fasting, Patrick wrote: “I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me: ‘It is well that you fast. Soon you will go to your own country.’ And again, after a short while, I heard a voice saying to me: ‘See, your ship is ready.’ ”
Patrick escaped and traveled 200 miles cross country to the west coast. He found a ship ready to sail, but was refused passage. After a desperate prayer, he was allowed aboard.
Patrick eventually returned to his home and family. His experience of God’s grace and provision solidified his faith. He began to study for the ministry.
Freeman says, “One night, he had a dream. Thee was a man who came from Ireland with a whole bunch of letters. And he opened up one of the letters and it said ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And then he heard a voice coming out of this letter that said, ‘Holy boy, please return to us. We need you.'”
Patrick struggled in his soul. Could he return to Ireland and minister to the same people who had enslaved him? Once again, he turned to God in prayer. He received the answer in a dream.
“He talks about how he, in this dream, is trying to pray and yet he can’t,” says Freeman. “So he hears a voice coming from inside of him which he realizes is the voice of God praying for him.”
Patrick knew he had to go and convince his church that he was called to be a missionary to Ireland. He set sail in a small ship.
Patrick landed at the mouth of the Slaney River. When Patrick set foot on this shore, a new era dawned on this island.
“The Ireland of his day really wasn’t much different from the Ireland of a few years ago here where we are sitting here at this moment,” notes Most Reverend Dr. Robert Eames, Church of England Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland. “It was an Ireland of tribalism, an Ireland of war, an Ireland of suspicion, an Ireland of violence and death. Here he came as a virtual stranger to this country of warring factions.”
“They worshipped multiple gods of the sky and the earth and the water,” says Freeman. “And so that was his first challenge: to convince the Irish that there was only one God and that his God really did love them.”
Patrick came face to face with the chieftains and their druid priests. The showdown came on the morning of his first Easter in Ireland.
Monsignor Raymond Murray, parish priest of Cookstown in Northern Ireland explains further: “Part of the pagan worship of fall to spring, from the beginning of the summer, was that a fire was lit, and first of all, the fire on the hill of Tara and no other lights at all in Ireland.”
This monastery on the hill of Slane is where Patrick — in direct defiance of the high king of Tara — lit a forbidden fire.
Notes Rev. Brady, “He was summoned before the king, and he explained that he wasn’t a threat, because he was bringing the new light, the light of Christ, the Savior of the world, the Light of the world.”
“The first light of Easter day was dawning. Patrick brought the hope of Easter day to Ireland,” says Rev. Eames.
The weather can be absolutely brutal here in Ireland. But just imagine how it must’ve been for Patrick in the 5th century as he trekked across the countryside bringing the Gospel to the pagan Celts.
“People sometimes made fun of him because he said that God often gave him a message there was danger ahead,” says Freeman. “But, he said, ‘Laugh at me if you will. This is something that has protected me in Ireland.'”
Listen to Patrick’s poem of faith and trust in God, “The Breastplate”:
“Christ be within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ inquired, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”
Myths and legends have grown up around this hero of Ireland.
As Monsignor Murray explains, it is sometimes difficult to describe the triune aspect of God. So, according to the story, to better illustrate the central teaching of the trinity, Patrick took a shamrock and pointed out the three leaves on it. Interestingly, it is only in Ireland that you find this shamrock. Therefore, the people believed.
“One of the famous legends, of course, is that Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland,” says Irish historian Harold Calvert.
In fact, any snakes in Ireland had disappeared during the Ice Age.
“The legend about the driving of the snakes may, in fact, really symbolize the driving out of evil,” says Calvert.
In 432 A.D., Patrick built a church on the site of the present day St. Patrick’s Memorial Church in Saul — the first ever Christian church in all of Ireland. It’s considered the cradle of Irish Christianity.
“Preaching the Gospel, of course, baptizing converts, confirming them, appointing clergy,” continues Calvert.
Patrick’s ministry lasted 29 years. He baptized over 120,000 Irishmen and planted 300 churches.
“What Patrick did was really lay the groundwork for Christianity,” says Freeman.
To this day, no one knows where Patrick is buried, but many believe that it is somewhere beneath the church on the hill at Down Cathedral.
Rev. Sean Brady concludes, “He was a man who came to face and help his former enemies who had enslaved him. He came back to help them and to do them a great favor — the greatest favor he possibly could.”
Rev. Earnes concurs, “I honestly feel that what Patrick taught Ireland was that there is a cost to discipleship, but it’s a cost worth paying. And I believe, to bring this right up to date, the church of St. Patrick must be constantly saying to people, ‘Discipleship demands of you, but it’s a cost that Christ will help you to pay.'”