Friday, March 17, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we tell the story of the “real” St. Patrick.

It is the 17th of March 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


A very happy St. Patricks Day- I don’t do accents- but I’ll give you a little of an old folk song about this saint about whom it seems you can make up just about anything 

“St Patrick was a gentleman he came from decent people
He built a church in Dublin Town and on it put a steeple

His father was a Gallagher his uncle was a Grady

His Aunt was an O’Shaughnessy and his mother was a Brady

The Wicklow hills are very high so is the hill of Howth sir

But there’s a hill much higher still much higher that them both sir

On the top of this high hill St. Patrick preached his sermon

He drove the frogs into the bogs and banished all the vermin”

 But as the historical St. Valentine was difficult to discern, so too is Patrick. We do have two things written by Patrick- his “confessio”- which begin:

“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. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae” He also wrote a letter, the “Epistola” a letter he wrote to a local chieftain to justify his mission and complain about the chieftains' mistreatment of the Irish.

Patrick may have been born “Maewyn Succat”. The name “Patrick” may be from “Patricius” a name for his station. He was born, well, it seems, in modern-day England (perhaps on the Welsh border) or maybe in the Scottish Lowlands. His family would be roman, but by the time Patrick was growing up, the Roman Empire was already failing and the Roman soldiers had left Britain. This made Patrick and others vulnerable to Irish raiders who kidnapped him when he was about 16. Here we hear that he was some kind of shepherd for 6 years, he came to rely on his faith and was eventually told in a dream to go to the coast to find a ship he could leave on.  

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he went to the continent to study or went back to Britain. No matter where he went he studied for the priesthood and decided that he was to go back to the Irish to evangelize. He wouldn’t be the first to go- the Pope sent a “Palladius” earlier in the 400s to Ireland, and some of their stories may have blended together.

Did he drive snakes out of Ireland? No- there have never been snakes in Ireland. But he was, according to legend, keen on driving out demons to show the Irish pagans the superiority of his God. Snakes and the devil have long been associated, so perhaps this is where we get that story.

Did he use a shamrock to teach the Trinity? The Shamrock is a popular plant in Ireland, and it symbolizes spring and rebirth, but the Trinity comparison is a story first told hundreds of years after his life. It seems to dovetail with other stories wherein he would try to explain Christian doctrine to pagans using their own symbols (such as the Celtic cross having the depiction of a sun on it- comparing Christ to the sun deity).

Part of what makes it difficult is when Patrick lived- at the end of the Roman Empire was on the cusp of what we call the “dark ages”- and these “dark ages” have nothing to do with literal darkness but instead a lack of sources and texts from the time.

By the time the Irish had developed a bustling monastic community, it made sense to build legends and stories as to how it came about- much of the lore came from the later Middle Ages when the Irish monasteries were a jewel in Christendom. The veneration given to Patrick seems to be reflected in the important place Irish monasteries would have in the growth of Christianity in Europe.

As for the parades, the corned beef and cabbage- that’s an American thing—a Happy St. Patrick’s day to you and yours.


The last word for today comes from St. Patrick’s Breastplate- or the prayer of St. Patrick- not by him, but like so many stories attributed to him- here is an excerpt:

I arise today, through

God's strength to pilot me,

God's might to uphold me,

God's wisdom to guide me,

God's eye to look before me,

God's ear to hear me,

God's word to speak for me,

God's hand to guard me,

God's shield to protect me,

God's host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptation of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

afar and near.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of March 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Patrick’s include Stewart, the Swayze, the Starfish, and the Saint— he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man whose bracket is likely busted by the time you hear this- I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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