On this day, March 17, we commemorate the death of Saint Patrick in the year 461. Although he is the most celebrated saint, both inside and outside of Christendom, little has been left to the records of history about the man known as the Apostle of Ireland.
One of the earliest accounts we have comes from the Venerable Bede. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, one of the first notable names to appear is Patrick. A Briton born circa 389 to a Christian deacon and minor town official named Calpurnius, Patrick is captured by Irish pirates at the age of sixteen, brought back to Ireland, enslaved, and forced to work as a herdsman for six years. At the end of these six years, Patrick receives a dream where he sees a boat by which he can escape. Inspired, he flees to the coast, miraculously finds a ship, and sails home. After a brief second captivity, he is reunited with his family and begins to study as a priest under St. Germanus of Auxerre.
While many consider Patrick to be the first missionary to Ireland, this is not the case. Under the direction of Pope Celestine, the first missionary effort in Ireland was undertaken by a man named Palladius. His efforts ended almost as soon as they began due to Palladius’ untimely death.
Shortly after Palladius’ death, Patrick has another dream, recorded in his Confessio. In this dream, a man named Victoricus delivers to him a letter entitled “The Voice of the Irish.” As he reads it, he feels the summons of the Irish people to return to the place of his captivity and preach to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
By this time, around 430, Patrick, already an ordained Bishop of the Church, was sent to Ireland. Unfortunately, at this part of the story, history and legend begin to run together. It appears that Patrick focused his missionary efforts initially on the tribal leadership. He even established territorial bishoprics with his See at Armagh. Legend claims that Patrick’s first encounter with a druidic chieftain almost ended in his death. By divine intervention, Patrick survives and is able to convert the chieftain. From here he slowly winded his way south, all along the way catechizing, baptizing, and preaching the Gospel to the Pict tribes.
During this time, according to older, 7th-century legends, he drove all the snakes out of Ireland, into the sea, to their watery doom. These same legends record that he used the iconic shamrock to teach the mystery of the Trinity. During his ministry Patrick claims to have also raised the dead. Indeed, some 12th-century legends claim he raised a total of thirty-three people, even people who had been dead for some time!
Despite the grave threat of martyrdom during his roughly thirty years of ministry, Patrick persevered and experienced enormous success. The witness of his enduring legacy are evident in Irish Catholic monasticism and asceticism. The monasteries, which blossomed a century after his death, became robust centers for Christian theology and classical learning. Alongside his work as an evangelist, Patrick also left behind a legacy of humility and faithfulness which serves as an example for Christians to this day.