Who was Saint Patrick?

St. Patrick  may very well be the most popular saint in history, but most people who festively celebrate St. Patrick’s Day do not know the real man behind the myths and legends.

SAN JOSE, March 17, 2012—St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated by people of all ethnicities by donning the Irish for the day. They dress in green, wear hats and big buttons proclaiming “Kiss Me I’m Irish,” and drink beer dyed green.

In Chicago, the land were many residents actually are Irish, they dye the river green.

Most celebrants would be surprised to learn that St. Patrick was not Irish. He was actually born into the Roman Empire to parents who, as officials of Britannia, were of status and wealth.

It is also surprising to discover that as a teenager, Patricius was kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Although it is not clear where Patricius was born, many historians speculate that it was along the western coast of Britain somewhere between the border of present day Scotland and Hadrian’s Wall, which was built by the Romans to keep the ancient Picts away from their southern domain.

It is also not clear exactly when he was born, but much speculation leads to AD 387, during the reign of Roman Emperor Thedocius I (r.379 to 395), who had converted the entire Empire to Christianity after his own conversion in 380.

Born of the noble Calpurnius and Conchessa, Patricius was given an appropriate Roman name: “Patricius” means “noble of the patrician class,” referring to the class that had ruled Rome since the early Republic. His father was a Decurion, or a cavalry officer in command of Roman soldiers, who had been originally sent to the northern area of Britannia to keep order on the outskirts of the declining Roman Empire.

The Decurion’s troops would have had to deal with the Picts of Scotland and the Celts in Ireland, who had not been conquered by the Romans.

Calpurnius also served in the capacity of a deacon in the church and as a tax collector for the Roman authorities. Patrick related in his writings that his grandfather, Potitus, was a Catholic priest. It is important to note that at this period in the early church development, priests were not prohibited from marrying and having a family. This meant that the young Patricius was raised a Christian, but his later testimony reveals that he cared little for his parent’s religion while a youth.

However, when he was about 16, Patrick’s life changed forever.

While his parents were in their village, Patricius was staying at the family’s country villa near the coast when Celtic slave raiders stormed the villa and captured the young man along with a number of other potential slaves. Put in irons, the slaves were marched to awaiting boats that took them across the Irish Sea to Ireland.  

Young Patricius was taken to a Druid Chieftain known as Milchu who forced him to tend his flocks of sheep on the land in the northeast of Ireland. This is believed to be in an area that is known today as County Antrim, where Belfast is located. It is in this area, supposedly near Slemish Mountain, where Patricius served as a shepherd in slavery for six years. And it is in such a place where, while tending the sheep, he spent much of his time in prayer, developing a relationship with God.

Looking back upon this time, St. Patrick later declares in his “Confessio” his pride in the fact that he prayed every day, several times a day:

“… and the faith grew in me, and the spirit was roused, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same, so that whilst in the woods and on the mountain, even before the dawn, I was roused to prayer and felt no hurt from it, whether there was snow or ice or rain; nor was there any slothfulness in me, such as I see now, because the spirit was then fervent within me.”

During this period, as he tended the flocks, young Patricius began to grow up and as he continued to pray, he testified that he began to develop a relationship with God that would fundamentally transform his life. Eventually he explained that he heard God’s voice telling him that he would soon be going home and leaving Ireland.

At first, he dismissed the voice, but when he heard it again, Patrick would write, it was quite clear: “Behold, your ship is ready.” The voice instructed Patrick how to also find the ship, but he would have to walk 200 miles to get to it. 

Initially, Patrick resisted the voice, but later made plans to escape. The hardest part was not the journey, for he was a healthy young man who had endured all kinds of weather throughout the years he was tending the flocks. The fear was that fugitive slaves, when caught, were taken to the local king, punished and returned to their masters who punished them again.

Patrick realized that he could not ask for help for fear he would be turned in. He also later explained that he felt he had received permission to walk away from slavery, but he had not received any permission to break the Ten Commandments and steal food from others. Having fasted quite often while in captivity, the young slave was used to going without food, so taking what food he had, stuffing it into his pockets, Patrick made off in the middle of the night. 

The 200 mile trek from the north of Ireland to the south was not much of a problem for the young man, and he found the ship as the voice had directed him. However, now began the most difficult portion of his journey. He had to reveal himself to the ship’s captain and crew, who could easily turn the scrawny young man with a British accent in to a local authority or take him aboard with the intent to sell him as a slave for their own profit.

Watching the crew load the ship, he recognized the captain as the one ordering the others around and waited patiently until he felt that the ship was ready to leave port, without the time necessary to report him to authorities. Going right up to the captain, he asked to join the crew. He was denied.

One can imagine Patrick’s devastation; he had trusted God and followed His directions, only to fail at end of his long journey.      

If the story ended there, people would not be celebrating St. Patrick today. As Patrick walked away he continued praying and as he did, one of the crew called to him and asked him to come back. He faced the captain again, this time being offered a position with the crew.

Patrick sailed away from his emerald prison and eventually made it to his home back in Britain. But the six years as a shepherd had changed him forever.  When he eventually made it back to his family, he informed his parents that he intended to become a priest.

St. Patrick’s testimony later in his life reveals how much this time transformed him:

“God used the time to shape and mold me into something better. He made me  into what I am now – someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care about others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.”

After Palladius, a bishop, failed in dealing with the wild Irishmen, Pope Celestine sent Patrick back to the land where he had been enslaved. Patrick proved to be the perfect choice to replace him since he had learned the Irish language while a slave, but more importantly, he had learned the teaching of the Druids.

When Patrick went back to Ireland as a Bishop of the Church, he had no fear of their religious beliefs nor any fear of the violent animosity or barbaric methods of intimidation toward other religions from the Druid priests and chieftains.

Perhaps most important was the fact that while he was a young man, he had fallen in love with the land, and he had fallen in love with God in the Emerald Isle.

Have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day!       

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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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