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The "Patrick" of St Patrick’s Day Revealed

St Patrick’s Day is known as a day to wear green and see shamrocks (three-leaved clovers). But who was the man behind the celebration? Patrick (390?-460?) is known as the "Apostle of the Irish" although he was not Irish and lived the early part of his life not as a man of importance but instead as a slave.

Knowledge of Patrick’s life is scant, even the years of his birth and death are questionable. Many stories have been told of Patrick, the most famous being that he chased all the snakes out of Ireland.

Yet this much is widely accepted as truth of Patrick. He was born in Britain and brought up as a Christian. At the age of 16 Patrick was kidnapped by pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave, perhaps working as a sheepherder. After being a slave for six years he believed God told him to escape. He traveled 200 miles to a port on the southeastern coast of Ireland (closest to England) where he found passage on a ship and landed back in Britain. Eventually he made it home, a much different man then when he had left almost seven years earlier.

His change came in the form of a desire to become a priest. He underwent the necessary training and was sent as a "Bishop of Ireland" back to the land where he had lived as a slave. He would spend the rest of his life in Ireland, evangelizing the people and setting up a strong Christian presence among the Irish. His influence was so strong that today Ireland consists of 90% Catholics.

Only one of Patrick’s writings is known to exist. This book, known as The Confession of Saint Patrick, was written toward the end of his life. (In that time, the title "Confession" meant "autobiography.") In it—and it is only about fifty pages in a small paperback—he tells of the events of his life.

In this writing Patrick’s clear sense of purpose comes through. One quote exemplifies this, and is reminiscent of Paul’s attitude in the New Testament: "Even if I am imperfect in so many ways, nonetheless I want others to know my mettle, so that they may clearly recognize the set of my soul." Patrick believed that not everything he did pleased God, but he nevertheless clung to God. As he stated in section 44: "I do not believe in my own powers, as long as I shall continue in this moral flesh, because he (the flesh) is strong, who daily strives to turn me away from the faith and from the purity of religion that is without any pretense right up to my very last breath in Christ my Lord. Yet my enemy the flesh continually drags me down to death, I mean indulgence in illicit pleasures. And I well know in part why I have not led a perfect life, just like other believers, but still I confess my Lord and I do not blush for shame in his sight. Neither do I lie, for I have known him from my youth, and the love of God and the fear of him have grown in me, and up till now, by God’s goodwill, I have kept the faith."

But still, why is March 17 called St Patrick’s Day? Because that is the accepted date of his death. This celebration was brought over by Irish immigrants to the colonies, with the first recorded celebration of St Patrick’s Day being in Boston in 1737. In addition, the St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City has been held since 1762. And the shamrocks? The story goes that Patrick explained the Trinity of God, Three in One, by using a three-leafed clover: three leaves but part of the same plant.

©2004 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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