Surprise! St. Patrick was not Irish. The patron saint of the emerald isle was born in Scotland, the son of a wealthy Roman magistrate who oversaw the British colonies under the rule of the Roman Empire.
When he was 14 years old, Patrick was abducted from his home by a band of Celtic raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland. His captors put him to work as a shepherd, and it was during this labor that Patrick found Christ. “I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain,” he wrote.
Patrick had been enslaved for nearly six years when he had his first saintly vision: The voice of God commanded him to leave Ireland. He escaped bondage and walked nearly 200 miles to the coast where sailors smuggled him back to Scotland.
After reuniting with his family, Patrick had another vision: He dreamed that an angel bid him to return to Ireland to spread the word of God. Patrick embarked on a 15-year religious sabbatical before earning a place in the Catholic brotherhood. His first mission as a new priest was to convert the Irish Celts to Christianity.
The Celts were tribal societies who believed in nature worship and more than one god. As a slave, Patrick was an insider to Celtic life and that knowledge proved invaluable in his quest to proselytize the pagan peoples.
Patrick built churches across Ireland and cajoled tribal chieftains. He fused pagan symbols with Catholic concepts, using the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity and creating the Celtic cross by superimposing the Christian cross over the sun icon.
Legend says that St. Patrick ascended a steep, rocky hill and with nothing but a staff, drove all of the snakes from Ireland. But this island nation was never infested with serpents. The story is a clever allegory in which Patrick’s climb represented his 40-year struggle to eradicate paganism (the snake). By the time of his death on March 17, 461 A.D., Ireland had become a Catholic nation.
Originally, St. Patrick’s Day was a strictly religious holiday observed in Ireland. It has since grown to be a popular secular celebration of Irish nationalism around the globe. As the saying goes, “Everyone’s Irish on March 17th!”