Who Was the Real Saint Patrick and Why Do We Celebrate Him?


On March 17, people in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States celebrate St. Patrick's Day with colorful displays of green, parades, and traditional Irish dishes. The festivities make for a great time for those involved. But aside from the beer and corned beef, what do you know about St. Patrick as a man? Most people probably don't know much about him, but he has an incredible story worth telling.

Patrick was a man who lived in the 400s AD. He wasn't born in Ireland, but in Scotland, though his actual date of birth is unknown. Patrick went to Ireland initially not because of any choice he made, but because he was captured and sold into slavery.

Patrick was 16 years old in about the year 405, when he was captured in a raid and became a slave in what was still radically pagan Ireland. Far from home, he clung to the religion he had ignored as a teenager. Even though his grandfather had been a priest, and his father a town councilor, Patrick "knew not the true God."

His time in slavery changed him, though, and he came to know God during those terrible years.

But forced to tend his master's sheep in Ireland, he spent his six years of bondage mainly in prayer. He escaped at the suggestion of a dream and returned home.

Of course, his story does not merely stop there. When he was in his 40s, Patrick actually returned to Ireland on a mission to convert the island nation from their pagan religions to Christianity. Previously, Palladius was sent to evangelize and convert the Irish, but had not succeeded. But Patrick was highly determined and full of passion for his mission.

Palladius had not been very successful in his mission, and the returning former slave replaced him. Intimately familiar with the Irish clan system (his former master, Milchu, had been a chieftain), Patrick's strategy was to convert chiefs first, who would then convert their clans through their influence. Reportedly, Milchu was one of his earliest converts.

Patrick did not convert the entire island on his own, but much of it became Christian because of his evangelistic work. Before long, Ireland became a center of Christianity, and for the Christians of the 5th century, that was very important as Ireland was one of the "ends of the earth," a place where Jesus Christ commanded his followers to spread His Gospel.

The Irish commemorated a day to honor Patrick, and though he was never formally canonized as a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church, he still became known as St. Patrick throughout the centuries. The history of his work continues to today, as the symbols he used are still a staple part of the celebration in his honor.

Patrick used the shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today, the shamrock still dominates the holiday as the main scene, though its original meaning has largely been lost to things like milkshakes (though I'll still take a shamrock shake!).

Why do we celebrate the holiday here in the United States, and in other countries? When the Irish began emigrating to other countries, they brought their traditions with them, St. Patrick's Day being one of them.

It's unfortunate that the history behind people like Patrick is often lost to the celebration itself. Patrick changed that part of the world for the better, by bringing the truth of the saving Gospel of Christ to a pagan society. His work way back then was just one of the foundational building blocks of Western society, the Judeo-Christian ethic.

So if you're celebrating the day today, enjoy the time. But remember why we're even remembering a man named Patrick from the 5th century, because of the bold mission he faithfully carried out that transformed a nation.