Slave, traveler, evangelist, abolitionist, and saint. A scant 400 years after Jesus' birth, the priest known as Patrick took the Great Commission seriously, to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth by converting the frightening barbarians of that scary outpost known as Ireland. Dates and details of Patrick's life are somewhat ambiguous since written records from fifth-century Ireland are scarce. A lot of what we know comes from what little Patrick himself wrote, or from biographies written long after his time.
According to tradition, Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in Britain (different sources say England, Scotland, or Wales) to Roman parents around AD 387. In his later ministry, he went by the name Patricius Daorbae which means "Patrick who was once a slave."
When he was around 16 years old, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish marauders who sold him into slavery to a Druid herdsman named Milchu. Patrick remained in Ireland for six years. During this time, Patrick learned the Celtic language and became acquainted with the practices of the Druids. He later wrote that he became close to God during this time and prayed every night for his deliverance. He ran away after hearing direction from an angel and walked 200 miles to catch a boat back to Britain. Afterward, Patrick was sent to France to begin his training for the priesthood despite the long break in his formal education. When he achieved priesthood, Patrick was assigned to Britain, but his dream was to return to Ireland to convert the pagans.
According to later biographers, his teachers recommended him to Pope Celestine I for a mission to Ireland, or it’s possible he left for Ireland on his own because of a vision. While Patrick was not the first Catholic bishop assigned to Ireland, he was the first who set a goal of converting the entire country. His predecessor Palladius was mainly concerned with ministering to the existing Irish Christian minority in the south and protecting them from the influence of the Druids. Celestine sent Patrick to Ireland in 428 or 432.
Patrick's first quest in Ireland was to see the slave owner of his youth, the Druid Milchu; not to seek revenge, but to convert him. Milchu heard the news of the priest's arrival in Ireland and he committed suicide by burning himself, his home, and his treasures before Patrick arrived. Sources of this story vary, with some saying Milchu killed himself out of fear that Patrick was seeking revenge. Others say Milchu was a proud Druid who preferred death to listening to the foreign gospel. In any case, Patrick was devastated.
Patrick's first church was in what is now County Down. He converted a Druid chieftain named Dichu who granted him a barn on a hill, or Sabhail (pronounced Saul), where Patrick founded a church.
The priest traveled from coast to coast in Ireland, visiting kings and chieftains, speaking their language and evangelizing. He confronted Druids and performed miracles by resisting their powers and escaping the several times he was taken prisoner. Patrick converted leaders and slaves alike, and founded churches in many corners of Ireland. One Easter, Patrick and his followers started a fire early in the morning near Tara. The local law forbade anyone starting a fire before the king did, so King Laoghaire and his Druid priest faced off with Patrick, who did not back down but told those present of his powerful God. As the story goes, a Druid magician challenged Patrick to a trial by fire, which led to the magician's death.
Image Cathedral of Armagh. Image by Brian Shaw.
Patrick was especially proud of bringing Christianity to Ulster in the northern part of Ireland, and founded the Cathedral of Armagh, which still stands on a hill he selected.
Odhran, St. Patrick's charioteer, became a martyr by saving the bishop's life. Odhran heard a rumor of an assassination, and persuaded Patrick to change jobs with him on the appointed day as a special favor. Unaware of the threat, Patrick granted his wish, and Odhran was attacked and killed.
Patrick was one of the first people in the history of the world to publicly denounce the institution of slavery. Slaves had no voice—those in power owned slaves, and the church didn't condemn slavery for another thousand years. Patrick, however, had been there, done that, and his identification with the downtrodden helped him convert those who were ignored by the powers that be. He was also an early feminist, actively evangelizing women in an age when many missionaries discounted or feared them. His activities in this area may have led to some trouble with the Catholic church, which led to Patrick writing his extensive Confessio.
Croagh Patrick, or St. Patrick's Mountain, was his refuge and purgatory. It was on this hill that Patrick fasted and prayed for 40 days straight for the people of Ireland. He pleaded to God for special treatment for the Irish on judgment day. The hill became a pilgrimage site, and gold was discovered there in the 1980s, but is not mined.
Later in life, Patrick retired to his first church, Sabhail. He wished to die at Armagh, but a vision told him to stop his journey and return to Saul and remain there. St. Patrick died in 463 or 491 or some year on March 17th, which became his feast day, as is the custom for saints, although St. Patrick was never officially canonized by the Vatican, as his sainthood predated formal canonization.