Myths and Misconceptions about Saint Patrick

A composite of four images of Saint Patrick

 Bernd Biege

Saint Patrick ... a lot of myth and misconceptions (which I often like to lump together as "mythconceptions") surround Ireland's patron saint. Everybody knows a bit of the story, it seems. But are these bits real or have they been more or less invented in hagiographies? Let us take a look at some of the more persistent and well-known errors ...

  • Saint Patrick - an Irishman, Born and Bred?
  • The Problem of Patrick's Original Home.
  • Saint, Canonized and All ... or Just Patrick?
  • Patrick - a Missionary When Coming to Erin's Green Shore?
  • Saint Patrick, the Man Who Brought Christianity to Ireland ... or Not?
  • Travelling All Over Ireland? Or Bilocating? Or Two Patricks?
  • He's the Man ... or was There Criticism of Patrick?
  • C'mon, Patrick, Light My Fire - the Stand-Off at Tara.
  • That Old Story About the Snakes ... a Slippery Thing.
  • Patrick's Birthday Celebrations on March 17th?
01 of 10

Saint Patrick was Irish

Saint Patrick's Statue at Tara
© Bernd Biege 2014

Actually - no. Ireland's patron saint was a "non-national" or what we would call "New Irish" in these politically correct times.

Meaning he was a foreigner, an immigrant. Of uncertain origin, he may have been from (what today are) Britain or France, maybe even Spain. And first came as a slave.

You might say, however, that he was Irish by adoption, as his most important life-phase happened in Ireland and changed Ireland.

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02 of 10

Saint Patrick was British

Saint Patrick, convenient mode of transport in background, at Saul church.
© Bernd Biege 2015

That is uncertain, but possible. It certainly would be the nearest point of origin for a Rome-influenced Christian slave to be dragged from.

Some biographies give Patrick a Welsh background (and even name), others simply state that he was from the neighbouring isle (making him "British" in a loose sense).

Fact is that Patrick may have come from Britain, but also from France or (at a pinch) the Iberian peninsula. Fact also is ... that there is no way to prove this, one way or the other.

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03 of 10

Patrick is a Canonized Saint

Hand shrine of Saint Patrick - he swears he's a Saint!
© Bernd Biege 2015

No, not really - the process of elevating somebody to "official sainthood" (as we know it today) was only established hundreds of years after Patrick became Saint Patrick.

In the more lenient fifth century a "saint" was a person leading a saintly life and doing saintly things, both defined by the local contemporaries. Patrick became a saint by acclamation from his peers. As, generally speaking, he was of saintly material, today's church has adopted him as a saint.

By the way ... this "adoption" is by no means an automatic process, several very popular saints (Saint Christopher for instance) have fared rather less well.

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04 of 10

Saint Patrick Came to Ireland as a Missionary

Shepherd Patrick, you had to know him before he was famous ...
© Bernd Biege 2015

Yes, but: Not at first - in his autobiographical sketch, the "Confessio", Patrick mentions being abducted from his homeland and then serving as a slave in Ireland.

Here in Ireland he had some sort of epiphany, then fled back east and devoted himself to religion full time.

Only later did he return to Ireland as a missionary, with Papal blessing.

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05 of 10

Saint Patrick Brought Christianity to Ireland

On a mission from God, Saint Patrick busy converting the Irish.
© Bernd Biege 2015

Sorry, but he didn't ... it is clear that there were Christians in Ireland before Patrick even started his mission.

There is also documentary evidence that at least one missionary was sent to Ireland before Patrick was tasked with spreading the gospel at (what was then) the end of the known world.

This was Palladius - and it might even be possible that Palladius and Patrick became one.

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06 of 10

But Saint Patrick Finally Brought Christianity to All of Ireland

Two Saint Patricks? It is possible ...
© Bernd Biege 2014

In a metaphorical sense he did, as there was (almost) no turning back to Pagan beliefs later and slowly all parts of the island became Christian.

But this was not just one man's work, Patrick educated and dispatched his own missionary corps on the island. He himself seems to have mainly flourished in the Northern half of the island. Despite many legends involving Patrick at almost every corner of the country.

Then again, maybe he was blessed with the ability to bi- or even trilocate. Or ... there were two Patricks.

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07 of 10

Saint Patrick was the Undisputed Champion of Early Christianity in Ireland

Patrick converting a king ... not everyone looks happy, it seems.
© Bernd Biege 2015

Oh no,he wasn't - should you actually be reading Patrick's "Confessio", you will discover several passages that are devoted to defending himself against criticism.

Though he is never quite clear about what these criticisms actually entailed. So he was under fire from other church authorities - for real or imagined transgressions.

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08 of 10

Saint Patrick Had a Stand-Off with the High King of Ireland at Tara

Patrick lights the fire ... with creepy monks in background.
© Bernd Biege 2015

Sort of ... the Pagan spring celebrations entailed the lighting of a ceremonial fire on the Hill of Tara, in the presence and with the blessing of the High King. Thus the story runs at least.

Patrick challenged this and lit a paschal fire just before the Tara happening - on the Hill of Slane, well out of harms' way, but still within visual range of Tara.

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09 of 10

Saint Patrick Drove the Snakes From Ireland

Who's the (roof) boss? Patrick with barely visible snakes ...
© Bernd Biege 2015

Now this would have been a miracle indeed ... as there were no snakes in Ireland, ever. At least not after the last ice age, the stories about Saint Patrick being the only anecdotal "evidence" for the existence for the slithery things, and no native snakes having ever been recorded.Thus his wonderful accomplishment would be on par with driving the kangaroos from Greenland.

But there may be a grain of truth behind the impossible feat - remember that Eve was tempted by a snake? The snake is an established symbol for Satan, sin and all sorts of un-Christian things.

So if you read "Saint Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland" as "Saint Patrick drove Paganism from Ireland", you might be nearer to the truth.

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10 of 10

On Saint Patrick's Day, We Celebrate his Birthday

The (alleged) grave of Saint Patrick in Downpatrick.
© Bernd Biege 2015

No, we don't - a saint's feast day is always the day on which he shuffled off this mortal coil and went to get his heavenly reward. Thus the 17th of March was (at least traditionally) the day Patrick died.

Fact is, we don't even know his birthday. Patrick never mentioned it, and his hagiographers did not make one up ...

Don't worry, there are more mythconceptions about Saint Patrick's Day ...

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