Saint Patrick’s Day is a religious festival held on the traditional death date of Saint Patrick. Largely modernized and often viewed as a cultural celebration, Saint Patrick’s Day is recognized in more countries than any other national festival. His association with Christianity and Irish nationalism have allowed Saint Patrick to remain a cultural figure today.
To celebrate, we’ve pulled a two-part excerpt from Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes, in which Philip Freeman tells the story of Saint Patrick. It is a tale of courage, survival, and deep faith. Remember to check back on 17 March for the second part of “The Life of Saint Patrick.”
Patrick was born in Britain, across the sea from the shores of Ireland. When he was 16 years old, he was kidnapped from his family’s villa by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland to be sold as a slave. He was bought by a druid named Miliucc and set to work tending his sheep in hunger, cold, and rain. When he had nowhere else to turn, he found again his childhood faith and the spirit burned inside him. He prayed a hundred times each day and the same again each night asking God to save him.
One night after six years of captivity, Patrick heard a voice telling him to flee from his master and make his way to a ship that was waiting for him. Patrick listened to the voice and ran away. They sailed for three days and three nights on the sea and landed in a wilderness with nothing to eat or drink. Like the children of Israel, Patrick and the crew wandered through the deserted land. Finally Patrick prayed to God for deliverance—and the Lord heard his prayer. A herd of wild pigs came near them and the crew killed and ate them.
Patrick returned at last to his family in Britain and was received with joy. While he was back in his home, he had many visions telling him to return to Ireland and preach the gospel. Thus he determined to train as a priest and return to the land where he had been enslaved.
Now at this time in Ireland a great and mighty pagan king named Lóegaire ruled at Tara. He surrounded himself with druids and sorcerers who were masters of every sort of evil. There were two druids among his counselors named Lochru and Lucet Máel who were able to see the future by the dark arts of the devil. They had predicted to the king that one day a man would arrive from across the sea who would destroy his kingdom and the gods themselves if he allowed it. Many times they proclaimed:
There will come a man with a shaved head
And a stick curved at the top.
He will chant evil words
From a table at the front of his house.
And his people will say: “Amen, let it be so.”
This Lóegaire was ruling at Tara as king when Patrick arrived on the shore of Ireland at Inber Dee in Leinster. He then sailed north along the coast to Inber Sláne near the Boyne River and hid his boat there. He wanted to find his former master Miliucc and buy his freedom, for under Irish law he was still a slave.
A swine-herd found Patrick and his men near their boat and went to tell his master Díchu. This man thought they were thieves or pirates and set out to kill them, but he was a man of natural goodness and the Lord turned his heart when he saw Patrick. The new bishop of Ireland preached to Díchu and won him to the faith, the first of his many converts in Ireland.
Patrick then travelled across the land to the mountain of Slíab Míss where he had once been a slave. But when Miliucc heard that Patrick was on his way, he was prompted by the devil to kill himself lest he be ruled over by a man who had once served him. Miliucc gathered together all his possessions in his house and set the structure on fire with himself inside.
Patrick saw the smoke in the distance and knew what Miliucc had done. He stood there for hours watching in silence while he wept…Patrick left the lands of Miliucc and traveled around the nearby plain preaching the gospel. It was there the faith began to grow.
Now at that time Easter was drawing near and Patrick talked with his companions about where they might celebrate the holy festival in that land for the first time. He decide at last that they should celebrate Easter in the plain of Brega near Tara, for this place was the center of paganism and idolatry in Ireland.
At the same time the heathens of the island were celebrating their own pagan festival with incantations, demonic rites, and idolatrous superstitions. Nobles and druids of the land had gathered at Tara to light a sacred fire. For it was an unbreakable law that no one could kindle a fire before the king had lit the holy fire on that night. But that evening Patrick kindled his fire before the king in full view of the hill of Tara. The king called his druids together and demanded to know who had lit a fire before him. He ordered that the man be hunted down and killed at once. The druids declared that they did not know whose fire it was, but they warned the king that unless he extinguished the fire that very night that it would grow and outshine all the fires of Ireland, driving away the gods of the land and seducing all the people of his realm forever.
When Lóegaire heard these things he was greatly troubled and all of Tara with him. He declared that he would find the man responsible for the forbidden fire and slay him. He ordered his warriors to prepare their chariots for battle and follow him out of his fortress.
They found Patrick nearby and summoned him before the king. His chief druid Lochru mocked the holy man and the faith he taught, but Patrick looked him in the eye and prayed to heaven that he might pay for his impiety. The druid was then lifted up into the air and cast down on a rock, splitting his skull into pieces.
The pagans were all angry and afraid, so that the king ordered his men to seize Patrick. But darkness suddenly fell on them all and an earthquake struck the warriors. The horses were driven into the plain and all the men died except for the king, his wife, and two of his men.
“I beseech you,” said the queen to Patrick, “do not kill my husband. He will fall before you on bended knee.”
Lóegaire was furious and still planned to kill Patrick, but he knelt before him to save his life. Patrick however knew what was in the heart of Lóegaire. Before he could gather more warriors, he turned himself into deer and went into the forest. The king then returned to Tara with his few followers who had survived.
The next day King Lóegaire and his men were in his feasting hall at Tara brooding about what had happened the evening before. Suddenly holy Patrick and his followers appeared in the midst of them even though the doors were closed. The king and his men were astonished. Lóegaire invited Patrick to sit and eat with them so that he might test him. Patrick, knowing what was about to happen, did not refuse.
While they were eating, the druid Lucet Máel placed a drop of poison in Patrick’s cup while the holy man’s eyes were turned. Patrick took the cup and blessed it, so that the liquid froze like ice. He then turned the cup upside down and the drop of poison fell out. Patrick blessed the cup again and the wine turned to liquid once more.
After dinner, the druid challenged Patrick to a duel of miracles on the plain before Tara.
“What kind of miracle would you like me to do?” asked Patrick.
“Let us call down snow on the land,” the sorcerer replied.
“I do not wish to do anything contrary to God and nature,” said Patrick.
“You are afraid you will fail,” exclaimed Lucet Máel. “But I can do it.”
The druid uttered magic spells and called down snow from the sky so that it covered the whole plain up to the depth of a man’s waist.
“We have seen what harm you can do,” said Patrick. “Now make the snow disappear.”
“I do not have the power to remove it until tomorrow,” said Lucet Máel.
Patrick then raised his hands and blessed the whole plain so that the snow disappeared in an instant.
The crowd was amazed and cheered for the holy man. But the druids were very angry.
Next the druid invoked his evil gods and called down darkness on the whole land. The people were frightened and begged him to bring back the light, but he could not. But Patrick prayed to God and straightaway the sun shone forth and all the people shouted with joy.
Featured image credit: “Tourmakeady” by Christian_Birkholz. CCO Public Domain via Pixabay.