The Real St. Patrick

His original name was Maewyn and he was probably born in the area we now know as Wales. Thought to have brought Christianity to Ireland he was actually a pagan until he was at least 16 years old. These are just two of the contradictions to be found in the life of Ireland's patron saint. Barry Keane unravels the facts from within the myth.

The story of Saint Patrick begins on the shores of the Bristol Channel in Roman England in the 5th century AD, where he and many other unfortunates were captured by the powerful Irish King, Niall. According to the saint's own account, a great many people were captured on this raid. Patrick, now a slave in Ireland, was sold to a landowner and made to tend flocks upon the weather beaten mountains of modern day County Mayo. This was to be his fate for the following six years, until one night he heard a voice in a dream telling him to escape.

Patrick walked two hundred miles until he came to a ship, but was denied passage because he "refused to 'suck the nipples' of the captain", a rather strange pagan gesture of loyalty. We can conjecture here that the captain was looking for a permanent crew member, but somehow or other Patrick managed to persuade the captain to take him on board and return him to his home across the sea. He did not stay long, however, but went to study for the priesthood in France. When he had completed his studies, Patrick went to visit relatives back in the border area between England and Wales, and it was there, he tells us, that he had a dream. He dreamt that a letter was given to him by a messenger entitled The Voice of the Irish, asking him "to walk among them." So compelling was the dream that he determined to embark on a mission to convert the Irish to Christianity. It was a mission that would occupy the next thirty years of his life, right up until his death.

From the first, Patrick was extremely shrewd in his dealings with the structures of power that operated in Ireland at the time. The most famous instance of this is how, one night, Patrick lit a Paschal fire within sight of the hill of Slane, where King Laoghaire of Tara was presiding over a pagan feast. The king was greatly angered as the law declared that on that night no fire should be lit before the king himself had done so. The druids warned Laoghaire that if the fire was not put out that night, "it would never be extinguished." Laoghaire had Patrick and his followers fetched and brought to him. This led to a trial by fire between Patrick and the druids of the king's court, whereby both sides attempted to prove the superiority of their powers. According to legend, the cloak of the druid was placed about a follower of Patrick named Banignus and set alight. Benignus' faith kept him free from the flame even though it burned to ashes all around him. When the cloak of Benignus was placed around the druid and set alight, the druid, despite his incantations, suffered a horrible death before the eyes of his king, With the death of the druid, Patrick declared that those present had witnessed the beginning of the end of paganism in Ireland, whereby he made a deal with Laoghaire that he could preach in his territory without being killed.


In his autobiographical work, Confessio, Patrick does not tell us of the pagan belief system that he encountered during his mission, but many subsequent folk legends tell of his continuous warring with the druids of Ireland, who had up till that time served a religious and political function that may have even been more powerful than the kings themselves. Celtic druids were, for the main part, magical advisors to the kings, who acted as intermediary personages between this world and the next. The triumph of Christianity would spell the end of the recognition of the magical practices and spiritual power as practised by the druids. That they fought the ascendancy of Patrick's teachings every step of the way is borne out by the numerous stories recorded by both Patrick and his biographers of how the druids tried to murder him.

Much of the success of Patrick's mission can also be put down to his own reasonableness and sensitivity when dealing with Ireland's pagan tradition. Attaining happiness in the afterlife in Christian teaching was only achievable in Christ, which, of course, meant that Patrick would in theory have had few words of hope to offer new converts concerning the fate of their deceased pagan family members. However, there is a high probability that the saint instituted the practice of resuscitating the dead (perhaps ritually, at least), baptizing them and once again laying them to rest. One story, recounted by Patrick's biographer, Tireachan, tells how Patrick once came across a large grave. His followers marveled at the sight and declared that men of such stature no longer existed. With that, Patrick struck the grave stone with his staff and made the Sign of the Cross. Like an episode from Homer, the dead man suddenly arose and said that he had been killed by a band of warriors. Patrick baptized him and returned him to the grave once again.

Worship of the sun and solar power was common throughout the pagan world. Indeed, it formed the cult centre of Constantine's reign prior to his embracing of Christianity. For Patrick, benevolence and all things good were made possible only by the grace of God. He, therefore, made a special effort to differentiate between natural light and that of the inner light of God. The sun only rose in the sky, preached Patrick, because God willed it to be so. This position struck at the heart of Celtic pagan rites and teaching, and particularly problematic proved to be the worship of deities such as Lugh, associated with light (Latin lux - light), and celebrated at the harvest festival of Lughnasa. Over the centuries, however, pagan seasonal festivals soon came to be associated with Christian calendar events. Indeed, Lughnasa in the middle ages was associated with Patrick's victory over paganism, whereas Samhain, a festival of the dead celebrated at the beginning of Winter, became appropriated by Christianity's All Souls Day.

Patrick laid strong foundations for a process that would take centuries to complete. And but a few centuries later, Ireland would become Europe's centre of monasticism and a beacon of light in a European world that had suddenly become terribly dark. Christianity in Ireland came at a price, however, as it necessitated the death of a belief system that seems to us today to have been perfectly in tune with both nature and the otherworld. Having said that, Ireland can count itself fortunate indeed that a man such as Patrick managed to introduce a revolutionary concept to an ancient land whilst also endowing the word of Christ with a distinct Celtic character.


(to) tend - care for, look after (opiekować się, zajmować się)
flock - group of farm animals, usually sheep (trzoda)
(to) conjecture - speculate, infer (przypuszczać, domyślać się)
compelling - exerting a strong influence on sth/sb (frapujący, istotny)
(to) embark - set off, begin (podjąć coś, rozpocząć coś)
shrewd - aware, sensitively intelligent (sprytny, mądry)
paschal - Passover (religious festival) (paschalny)
(to) preside - hold a position of authority (przewodniczyć)
(to) fetch - get, acquire (przyprowadzić)
incantation - reciting of magical spells (zaklęcie)
(to) institute - establish, organize (ustanowić)
(to) resuscitate - bring back to life (wskrzesić, reanimować)
stature - height (postura, ranga)
benevolence - kindly act (dobrodziejstwo, szlachetny uczynek)
(to) differentiate - make a distinction between sth (rozróżnić, odróżnić)
deity - god (bóstwo)
(to be) in tune - conform to sth (współgrać, być w zgodzie)
(to) endow - equip or supply (obdarzyć, wyposażyć)