May All the Angels Smile Upon You on St. Patrick's Day

Why was it important to the Irish people to recognize this particular missionary?

A statue of St. Patrick watches over Mam Ean pass. The mountain in the background is Binn Mhor.
A statue of St. Patrick watches over Mam Ean pass. The mountain in the background is Binn Mhor. (photo: Credit: ‘Espresso Addict’, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Shamrocks, wearing green, watching someone dance an Irish jig, drinking green beer — all of these bring to mind celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day. They are cultural reminders of the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, who died in the year 461 and was buried in Down Cathedral at Dunda-leth-glas, County Down in Ireland, the land he so loved. Added to these are legends of leprechauns — those wee fairy people who will pinch those not adorned in green. Added to the celebration of course, is all the wonderful traditional Irish food. St. Patrick was known for being a true missionary preaching about Jesus Christ and reaching thousands in Ireland.

Not to discount any of the wonderful legends; we now know that what is true about St. Patrick is a little different than some of the legends associated with him. For example, St. Patrick wasn’t born in Ireland. What does appear to be true about him is that he became a priest and later a bishop and was dedicated to converting many to Christianity in Ireland. He wasn’t necessarily the first one to do this; but it did seem that he was the most successful during this time. He was effective in completing this mission because he knew that you needed to start with converting the chiefs in order to convert the people; one of his first converts for example was Milcher, a chieftan.

The information and details of Patrick’s life are believed to come from writings written by Patrick himself. It is referred to as the “declaration”, where he gives a short account of his life.

From this source we learn that Patrick was born in Wales or (as it is referred to now) Debarton Scotland, Northwest of Glasgow, around the year 385 and his name was Maewyn, not Patrick. His father (Calpurnius) was a deacon and his grandfather (Politus) was a priest from Banna Venta Berniae. At 16 years of age he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold into slavery in Gaelic Ireland. He was sent to tend sheep on Slemish Mountain. It is during his six years of captivity where he learned to appreciate the faith he was taught as a young boy.

Almost seven years later, at the suggestion of a dream or a vision with God, he was told to flee to the coast, where a ship would be waiting to take him home. After a successful escape he returned home and became a priest. Acting on another vision he left his home again to returned to Ireland for the purpose of bringing the Gospel to the people he learned to love while he was held in captivity. After arriving back in Ireland, his position as a foreigner made things difficult. He received opposition from the pagan druids but he continued to teach and preach about Christ. He refused to accept gifts from kings and women of great wealth. He was at times beaten and robbed and likely held in captivity again.

It is difficult to ascertain what is true and what is not true and just legend surrounding Patrick. One thing that is connected with his teaching, for example, is the shamrock itself. He was said to have used it to explain the concept of the Blessed Trinity. He was also credited with ridding Ireland of snakes and and banishing them back to the sea. This is likely one of the legends that is not true, since it was believed that early Ireland never had snakes.

He is however, accountable for the conversion of approximately 100,000 people and responsible for building over 300 churches.

Why was it important to the Irish people to recognize this particular missionary — so much so, that even now so many years later, St. Patrick’s Day continues to be celebrated as a holiday? They continue to have parades, dances, music and food and drink to recognize this special day — not just in Ireland, but around the world. Maybe it’s the legends that surround him. One legend is that each year on March 17 the fish rise from the sea. They pass before St. Patrick’s altar in Ireland and then disappear back into the sea. Another legend is that the sun didn’t set the day St. Patrick died and it shone in the sky for twelve days and nights after he went to heaven. Maybe it’s just because one kind man dedicated his life caring for the Irish people, and in response he earned the role of hero and later saint.

This article originally appeared at the Register on March 17, 2017.