Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The real story of Saint Patrick

Everyone knows about Saint Patrick — the man who drove the snakes out of Ireland, defeated fierce Druids in contests of magic, and used the shamrock to explain the Christian Trinity to the pagan Irish. It’s a great story, but none of it is true. The shamrock legend came along centuries after Patrick’s death, as did the miraculous battles against the Druids. Forget about the snakes — Ireland never had any to begin with. No snakes, no shamrocks, and he wasn’t even Irish.

The real story of St. Patrick is much more interesting than the myths. What we know of Patrick’s life comes only through the chance survival of two remarkable letters which he wrote in Latin in his old age. In them, Patrick tells the story of his tumultuous life and allows us to look intimately inside the mind and soul of a man who lived over fifteen hundred years ago. We may know more biographical details about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, but nothing else from ancient times opens the door into the heart of a man more than Patrick’s letters. They tell the story of an amazing life of pain and suffering, self-doubt and struggle, but ultimately of faith and hope in a world which was falling apart around him.

1024px-Saint_Patrick_(window)
Saint Patrick stained glass window from Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA. Photo by Simon Carrasco. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The historical Patrick was not Irish at all, but a spoiled and rebellious young Roman citizen living a life of luxury in fifth-century Britain when he was suddenly kidnapped from his family’s estate as a teenager and sold into slavery across the sea in Ireland. For six years he endured brutal conditions as he watched over his master’s sheep on a lonely mountain in a strange land. He went to Ireland an atheist, but there heard what he believed was the voice of God. One day he escaped and risked his life to make a perilous journey across Ireland, finding passage back to Britain on a ship of reluctant pirates. His family welcomed back their long-lost son and assumed he would take up his life of privilege, but Patrick heard a different call. He returned to Ireland to bring a new way of life to a people who had once enslaved him. He constantly faced opposition, threats of violence, kidnapping, and even criticism from jealous church officials, while his Irish followers faced abuse, murder, and enslavement themselves by mercenary raiders. But through all the difficulties Patrick maintained his faith and persevered in his Irish mission.

The Ireland that Patrick lived and worked in was utterly unlike the Roman province of Britain in which he was born and raised. Dozens of petty Irish kings ruled the countryside with the help of head-hunting warriors while Druids guided their followers in a religion filled with countless gods and perhaps an occasional human sacrifice. Irish women were nothing like those Patrick knew at home. Early Ireland was not a world of perfect equality by any means, but an Irish wife could at least control her own property and divorce her husband for any number of reasons, including if he became too fat for sexual intercourse. But Irish women who were slaves faced a cruel life. Again and again in his letters, Patrick writes of his concern for the many enslaved women of Ireland who faced beatings and abuse on a daily basis.

Patrick wasn’t the first Christian to reach Ireland; he wasn’t even the first bishop. What made Patrick successful was his dogged determination and the courage to face whatever dangers lay ahead, as well as the compassion and forgiveness to work among a people who had brought nothing but pain to his life. None of this came naturally to him, however. He was a man of great insecurities who constantly wondered if he was really cut out for the task he had been given. He had missed years of education while he was enslaved in Ireland and carried a tremendous chip on his shoulder when anyone sneered, as they frequently did, at his simple, schoolboy Latin. He was also given to fits of depression, self-pity, and violent anger. Patrick was not a storybook saint, meek and mild, who wandered Ireland with a beatific smile and a life free from petty faults. He was very much a human being who constantly made mistakes and frequently failed to live up to his own Christian ideals, but he was honest enough to recognize his shortcomings and never allow defeat to rule his life.

You don’t have to be Irish to admire Patrick. His is a story of inspiration for anyone struggling through hard times public or private in a world with unknown terrors lurking around the corner. So raise a glass to the patron saint of Ireland, but remember the man behind the myth.

Headline image credit: Oxalis acetosella. Photo by Erik Fitzpatrick. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. JP

    What a weird disrespectful revisionist version of the story.

  2. Seagal

    Very interesting! One missing piece: how and why did Patrick equate “hearing God” with Christianity as opposed to one of many many other possible spiritual paths at that time?

  3. Ray

    You can call him the Christian God or the unknown God but he’s still the only true God

  4. Carol stewart

    Ha ha thats a good story. It amazes me why the truth of the man who was long before the catholic church was established and was messianic jewish who moved i. Power and authority by his deep relationship with God and hours of prayers. But catholic church were conquering land and quenched that movement. Not sure why story but some saints truly loved God.

  5. Maria

    The old retired teacher in meIwill like to share some articles and better educate people on some of the truth. I will like to post this article in FB, do I have permission and do I go about it???

  6. Yasmin Coonjah

    Hi,

    Yes you have permission.

    Many thanks,
    Yasmin- OUPblog deputy editor

  7. Earl L Winfield

    Fairy’s. and bull shit all opinions About bull Shit he was not talking to the invisible gods fake ass shit just another person trying to force religious bull shit on people and kill there culture the end now thats a story

  8. Glenn Wooden

    I would like your permission to post this article on Facebook.

  9. Yasmin Coonjah

    Hi Glen,

    You have our permission to share the post.

    Many thanks,
    Yasmin, OUPblog deputy editor.

  10. ramon al-amin

    You seem like such a sweet girl yasmin, unfortunately like others you decided not to tell the true story of Patrick the Butcher.

  11. Geraldine Callaghan

    There are some Truths to this story. Harvard? They are not too partial to Christianity.

  12. Ethan

    That’s a lie how did he drag the snakes out of Ireland!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Mary Cullen

    It’s true there were no snakes in Ireland however their were Shamorcks

  14. Eddy Sullivan

    hi i would too like to post to FB

  15. Nana Afia

    A complete lie, Ireland has never had snakes. The Druids were African Twa people who’s beliefs were presumed to be magic, they had the symbol of snakes on their head gear. St Patrick killed all the Twa people as they were the ones making it hard for them to conquer.

  16. Paul T Beagle

    Very interesting though seems to be subject to some speculation. Two letters only and i wonder the original words. Also, the original words and their context at the time is a question. Of course, i am comparing todays relatively short letters to yesteryears protracted essays.

  17. Kh

    Of course education is key in this matter. Everyone knows that snakes are not indigenous to Ireland. the snakes that he supposedly drove out of Ireland were people. Pygmy people who came from Africa to settle in Ireland. They came with medicine and healing potions. Because of this people and Ireland thought they were magical. The pygmy people were small thus came the legend of the leprechaun. He killed them off, all of them then becoming this great hero. The story of St Patrick is just another one of an ignorant sick mf in history that many uneducated people celebrate.

  18. Jennifer Nelson

    Can I repost this story???

  19. Yasmin Coonjah

    Hi Jennifer,

    Yes you can as long as you link back to the original source and credit OUP.

    Thanks,
    Yasmin
    OUPblog deputy editor

  20. Alice

    The Irish trace their roots to the Tuatha Dannan ppl who lived on Hy Braesil, off the SW area of Ireland. It was noted on a few maps w writings of those who visited the Island. Later, it disappeared. The Tuatha Dannan we’re tall & beautiful ppl w some powers. They taught the Druids some of their powers & astrology. The left the Island in 1700 AD. In fact, EXTRATERRESTIAL EXPERTS FEEL THEY MAY HAVE BEEN ALIENS.
    We never heard about pygmies. The Irish are of good stature. From whence did you find your article on pygmies?
    Leprechauns have red hair. Traveling from Africa to Ireland isn’t an easy journey. Pygmies were from central Africa. They weren’t Sea Travelers.
    Curious
    No snakes ever. YES, to Shamrocks.

  21. Alice

    Hi,
    I meant 1700 BC. I couldn’t find an edit button. Sorry.
    The Tuatha De Danann were in Ireland from 1897 BC to 1700BC.

  22. Lizsuncan

    Having listened to all comments i guess Patrick had a hard life i do love,my Irish myrhology we ar proud of our tales x

  23. Christine O'Neill

    Given to insecurities, fits of depression, self pity, and violent anger. Sounds Irish to me. Or Scotts. (Celtic/Norse heritage here, my people are moody sons of mothers) We seem to have left out the vicious killings of the Druidic people. Legends are usually tidied up and larger than life. Interesting read, though.

  24. Irishmum

    So you write…
    He was very much a human being who constantly made mistakes and frequently failed to live up to his own Christian ideals, but he was honest enough to recognize his shortcomings and never allow defeat to rule his life.

    I know there are even Christians today that have depression and don’t live up to Christ like ideals. That’s where the power of reedemption and Gods forgiveness come in to play a part of being human and we are better for it just like Saint Patrick.

  25. Nona Business

    Um it doesn’t mention that he killed people

  26. John Connolly

    @ Seagal – When one hears the voice of God, you just know it is from Him. It’s like asking how do you know when your mom or dad are talking to you or in the same house with you when you can’t see them? If you have a close relationship with mom and dad, you just know it’s them.

  27. charles a wiley

    THIS IS A BUNCH OF “LIES”. HE IS A MURDERER WHO KILLED THE “TWA PEOPLE AND INNOCENT DRUIDS”….Stop with the fairy tales #lookitup

  28. Pepe

    Whereas today, rather than beatify and cannonize a person who “hears God”, we correctly medicate them and offer aid. Which religion is “The True Faith” (and why it?) Do we really think that we just happened to be born into (or later proteltizezed into) the gospel which, unlike all the others, is correct?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *