Patrick was nothing like the elderly bishop of yore cloaked in green
The people of Ireland tend to assume they know everything there is to know about St Patrick, as it was drummed into them at school.
The official story told is St Patrick was kidnapped as a child and brought to Ireland to work as a herdsman on Mount Slemish, Co Antrim.
He converted Ireland to Christianity single-handed without bloodshed, and was made a bishop.
He outwitted the Druids at Tara, and drove the snakes out of Ireland from the summit of Croagh Patrick. He taught about the Holy Trinity by using the shamrock.
But you’re never told the full story at school.
The official colour of St Patrick is blue, and his saltire is red
The reality is far more interesting: for it is the unofficial history of the Irish people.
It was the devotion of what Myles ngCopaleen, aka Flann O’Brien, would call “the plain people of Ireland” that created the legend of St Patrick.
So the real story of St Patrick is that of the growth and development of the Irish people as a nation, both at home and abroad.
The people’s St Patrick, a green-clad bishop adorned with shamrocks, forms no part of the official Irish iconography. It was the Irish people who chose the colour green, the shamrock and St Patrick to symbolise their separate identity as a nation.
The official colour of St Patrick in heraldry is blue, and his saltire (X-shaped cross) is red.
And the official emblem of Ireland is a harp, and until independence it was surmounted by a crown.
Yet the colour green and the devotion to St Patrick and his feast day have remained potent symbols of Irishness worldwide. But not until independence was green adopted as part of the Irish state’s identity.
To this day, the nearest the shamrock has come to official recognition as a symbol of Irishness is as the logo of Aer Lingus.
St Patrick, unlike many early saints, including St George, the patron saint of England, really existed as a verifiable historical figure, and he died on March 17, in about 462AD.
Initially, his feast day was a sombre, three-day religious ceremony marked by prayer and fasting. What we celebrate tomorrow is the death of a humble, hard-working and courageous man of great spiritual stature who was a key figure in the conversion of pagan Ireland to Christianity.
Evidence for the existence of St Patrick is incontrovertible.
Two pieces of writing from his own hand – The Confession and The Letter to Coroticus – have survived to tell the tale.
Copies have been discovered in monasteries and libraries throughout Europe. No serious scholar doubts their authenticity.
They are written in the endearingly rough-hewn Latin of a not very well-educated man. He used Irish more than Latin in his day-to-day missionary work.
It is from these texts that we learn Patrick first visited Ireland when he was kidnapped by pirates as a young man, and worked as a slave.
Nobody knows where he came from, but he grew up in Britain under the Romans in a place called Bannavem Taberniae — which can no longer be identified.
His father was a deacon, a relatively wealthy man, so Patrick had a privileged upbringing. Places he might have come from include Brittany, Scotland, Wales or south-west England.
The only thing we know for sure is he was not “Irish born and bred”.
He describes himself as “a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful and utterly despised by many”.
St Patrick would have worn a short tunic and leather sandals, with a short cloak or pigskin over his shoulder
His privileged education was interrupted in his teens when he was captured and brought to Ireland. In other words, Patrick was a migrant, and he was trafficked.
After the luxury of life in a Roman villa, he had to adapt to being a herdsman, wearing animal skins, on what is believed to be on Mount Slemish.
Eventually he escaped, and made his way to the coast, where he was given passage back to the neighbouring island. But after a few years, he heard the Irish calling him in a dream, and knew he had to return.
The story is told in The Confession which is included in full as an appendix in my book, Patrick — From Patron Saint to Modern Influencer, and can be read online at confessio.ie.
Many of the so-called facts about Patrick’s mission originated in hagiographies written between 200 and 400 years after his death.
The notion that he converted pagan Ireland single-handedly without any bloodshed has no foundation in fact. There were other missionaries at work in other parts of the country. Patrick probably confined his mission to Ulster – notably the Lecale peninsula around Downpatrick – and parts of Connacht.
Pictures of St Patrick as an elderly bishop in long green robes with a mitre on his head and a staff in his hand are inventions of the 17th-century Catholic church.
This image of St Patrick as an elderly bishop with a long grey beard in bright green vestments with a tall, jewelled mitre on his head, a crozier in one hand and a shamrock in the other while snakes writhe under his feet, can be traced back to an engraving made by Thomas Messingham in 1624.
In real life, St Patrick would have worn a short tunic and leather sandals, with a short cloak or pigskin over his shoulder.
The St Patrick of folk tales often has the powers of a wizard
In the mid to late 19th-century, when great advances were being made in scholarship, the Protestant community increasingly chose to emphasise St Patrick’s identity as a young Roman, and he was depicted as such in many stained-glass windows.
The Catholic community, however, held on to the image of St Patrick as an elderly bishop well into the 20th century. Check out the stained-glass windows in your nearest church to prove the truth of this.
It was only towards the end of the 20th century that botanists agreed there was no such plant as “the shamrock”.
The three-leaved plant is usually the winter resting stage of red or white clover. Have another look at the plant you picked as shamrock a few months later, and you will find it has red or white clover flowers.
One of the reasons for the relatively peaceful assimilation of Christianity into religious practice in Ireland was the turning of existing celebrations – Oíche Shamhna, Nollaig – into Christian ones. St Patrick took the place of previous shape shifters and magicians in Irish folklore.
Folk tales often reappear disguised as miracles, in which the saint demonstrates the superiority of Christian religion over pagan superstition.
The St Patrick of folk tales often has the powers of a wizard. The most remarkable quality of these folk tales is the affection and familiarity with which St Patrick is described.
Many pilgrimages linked to Patrick have died out, along with an older generation
He is an informal fellow, very inclined to drop in for a chat by the hearth. He is often made responsible for otherwise inexplicable feats of nature. For example, the salmon has the power to jump because a salmon once leapt into St Patrick’s lap when he was hungry.
St Patrick invented cats and dogs when he dropped in for a chat with a good man who had unknowingly wed the devil’s mother. They had two children, a boy and a girl. The saint banished the woman in a ball of fire, but took pity on the children and changed the boy into a dog and the girl into a cat.
Many of the smaller pilgrimages in Ireland associated with St Patrick have died out, along with the older generation.
Others have been renewed, including Tóchar Phádraig, a 35km walking path from Ballintubber Abbey to Aughagower at the base of Croagh Patrick.
Religious devotion to St Patrick is still in evidence. Around 23,000 people still climb Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo on Reek Sunday, the last one in July, a small proportion of them barefoot.
It is a challenging climb, even for the well-shod, as those who watched Charlie Bird and his supporters climb “the Reek” last April, raising more than €3m for the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, can testify.
About 11,000 people a year still spend three days on Station Island at Lough Derg in Co Donegal, barefoot and fasting, and saying mainly silent prayers in a rigorous pilgrimage associated with St Patrick that has remained largely unchanged since the 1600s.
‘Patrick — From Patron Saint to Modern Influencer’ by Alannah Hopkin is published by New Island Books