For many around the world St. Patrick’s Day has become a welcome time of comradeship, green beer and a commemoration of everything Irish. But this annual event, held each year on March 17th, has roots that stretch back to the earliest centuries of the Christian era – during the Roman occupation of the British Isles.
With such ancient origins much of St. Patrick’s personal history can at best be described as vague. What is known is that the boy who would grow up to become Ireland’s patron saint was born Maewyn Succat, sometime between 373 and 390 AD. As much of the region’s history has been lost to the mists of time the exact place of his birth is also uncertain.
It is said that he was born in the village of Banna Vemta Burniae, but no scholar has ever officially located his place of birth. Some believe this lost village was located in Scotland, others claim his birthplace was in Wales, both areas being under Roman occupation at the time, but no definitive geographic location has ever been confirmed.
What is known for certain is that the young Maewyn Succat was the son of a Roman-British officer named Calpornius, who also served as the deacon of an early British Christian church, which probably played a role in his eventual rise as a major church icon.
While originally not overly religious, the young man who would eventually become known as St. Patrick, found his life irrevocably changed when at the age of 16, as he was tending to a flock of sheep, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and spirited away to the Emerald Isle where he was sold into slavery. According to one ancient chronicler the youth spent the next six years imprisoned near Mount Slemish in County Antrim in modern Northern Ireland where he was put to work as a herdsman.
His interrupted life and forced servitude saw him become increasingly religious as time wore on. He had come to view his kidnapping and imprisonment as a form of punishment for his earlier lack of faith. As a captive herdsman he spent long hours in prayer, hoping for a chance to escape – an opportunity that arose when, following a waking vision, he was able to stow away on a vessel bound for Britain and an eventual reuniting with his family.
Following a dream, he realized he had been given a mission from God to return to Ireland, to introduce the Irish to this new and growing faith. Feeling he wasn’t personally prepared enough to become a missionary he travelled to France to study theology at a monastery, where he worked for the next 12 years before (with the blessing of the Pope), he returned to Ireland to begin his ministry.
While not the first Christian to become a missionary in Ireland (that honor is given to an earlier preacher named Palladius), the now re-named Patrick is credited for having officially brought Christianity to Ireland, starting right where he landed, at Strangford Loch in County Down, Northern Ireland.
After winning the support of the region’s pagan kings Patrick spent the next two decades preaching and converting the locals before dying on March 17, 461. He is buried near modern Downpatrick in County Down. Credited with various miracles, and as the founder of numerous monasteries, churches and schools, Patrick has left a lasting impression on the Irish, and on those who celebrate the contribution the Irish have made to the world at large.