10 things to know about the real St. Patrick

On March 17, people around the world will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by parading in green hats, sporting images of shamrocks and leprechauns – tiny, grinning, fairy men – pinned to their lapels. Patrick’s picture will adorn greeting cards: an aged, bearded bishop in flowing robes, grasping a bishop’s staff and glaring at a coil of snakes.

The icon refers to one of Patrick’s legendary miracles in which he is said to have prayed to banish all snakes from Ireland. However, as a historian of medieval Ireland, I can assure you that the real St. Patrick, who lived and worked in the fifth century, never saw a snake or wore a shamrock.

Patrick’s own writings and early accounts of the saint’s career reveal many interesting details about the life of this patron saint of Ireland. Here are 10 things you may not know about St. Patrick.

1. Patrick was not Irish

Patrick was born around 450 A.D., just when Roman troops withdrew from Britain. His father was a gentleman and a Christian deacon who owned a small estate in a place called Bannavem Taburniae.

Scholars aren’t sure where this place was – it was probably on the west coast around Bristol, near the southern border of modern Wales and England.

2. Patrick was a slave

Irish slave traders sailed the waters off that same coast, and one day they came ashore to capture the teenage Patrick and his neighbors, to sell back in Ireland. Patrick spent six years tending sheep in the west of Ireland.

3. Patrick heard voices

While chasing sheep on the hills, Patrick prayed a hundred times a day, in all kinds of weather. It paid off. One night a mysterious voice called to him, saying, “Look, your ship is ready!” Patrick knew he wasn’t hearing sheep. The time was right for his escape.

4. Patrick refused to ‘suck a man’s breasts’

St. Patrick Catholic Church, Ohio. Nheyob (Own work)., CC BY-SA
Patrick made his way to Ireland’s east coast and sought passage on a ship bound for Britain. The captain, a pagan, didn’t like the look of him and demanded that Patrick “suck his breasts,” a ritual gesture symbolizing acceptance of the captain’s authority. Patrick refused – instead he tried to convert the crew.

For some reason, the captain still took him aboard.

5. Patrick had visions

One night Patrick dreamed that Satan tested his faith by dropping an enormous rock on him. He lay crushed by its weight until dawn broke, when he called out, “Helias! Helias!” – the name of the Greek sun god. The rock disappeared. Patrick took it as a kind of epiphany. He later wrote:

“I believe that I was helped by Christ the Lord.”

Patrick had other peculiar visions, too. Back home at Bannavem Taburniae, he was visited by an angel with a message from the Irish: “We beg you, Holy Boy, to come and walk again among us.” He trained as a bishop and went back to Ireland.

6. Patrick did something unmentionable

Years into his mission, someone, it seems, told a dirty secret about Patrick to his fellow bishops. “They brought up against me after thirty years something I had already confessed … some things I had done one day – rather, in one hour, when I was young,” he wrote.

Patrick did not tell us what he did – worship idols? Engage in a forbidden sexual practice? Take gifts from converts?