The History of St Patrick Pt 1

by JoHarrington

Who was St Patrick? Pampered Roman child; shivering, starving slave; learned priest; precociously young bishop; missionary; all of the above.

Of all the saints, there is something special about Patrick. He's not only the patron saint of Ireland, but his day is celebrated all over the world. The Irish Diaspora saw to that.

There is also an argument to be made that it was St Patrick's mission which saved Christianity from oblivion. The fact that it remains in the world today is because he converted the Irish to that faith. The religion retained a firm foot-hold when the Roman Empire fell, because Ireland wasn't part of it.

All in all, as holy men and their missions go, St Patrick's was a perfect storm.

Catholic Medallion of St Patrick

Patricius of Banna Venta Berniae

The Irish had spent centuries kidnapping British people for the Irish slave markets. (And, to be fair, the other way round.) But nothing quite like that raid in 410.

Image: CoracleThe terror must have been palpable that day.  There was nothing new about Irish slavers sailing across from the great slave port of Dublin, but rarely anything on this scale.

They usually came at night.  A tiny fleet of coracles hiding in the coves of Western Britain. Perhaps there would be just two or three, towing spare tiny, round boats to transport their captives. Just a handful of Irishmen to sneak into British homes and snatch sleeping children.

But not this day. In or around 410, the coracle fleet was huge and it came in broad daylight.  Not just the ordinary slavers but warriors too.  By the time the look-outs saw them coming, it was already too late.

History doesn't record the area, though there are several claims.  The most robust say that the Irish slavers sailed down the Severn Estuary, dragging their coracles up many beaches on the Welsh and Cornish coastlines. The most popular telling says that the villa was in Cornwall. 

Others would place it much further north.  In England, at Ravenglass in modern day Cumbria; or Ballentrae, in Scottish South Ayrshire.   Thus the Cornish, English and Scottish all want to claim this one, with Wales also holding a tenuous bid, because they know what happened next.

In the villa of Banna Venta Berniae, as the family of Calpornius watched the water in horror, they could only guess and pray.  Despite their names, the family were British, but in custom, culture and status they were Roman.  Unusually for the times, they were also Christian.

Calpornius's father Potitus had been a Catholic priest.  He was a Deacon himself. But as the Irish raiders swarmed over his property, it seemed that no God could help them.  Sixteen year old Patricius, his hitherto pampered son, was one of those dragged sobbing and screaming into the awaiting coracle. 

He was just one of thousands taken that day.

Biographies of St Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland

Buy these books about St Patrick to learn more about one of the most famous patron saints in the world.

The Slave Padraig

When Patricius grew up, he wanted to take his education and use it to carve a great career for himself in the vast Roman Empire. His future was stolen from him.

Image: Irish Slave ChainsFirst they stripped him and took his name away.  The attire of a well-born boy was not appropriate for a slave.  As for Patricius, that sounded way too foreign.

It actually meant 'noble' or 'of the ruling classes', which was yet another reason to remove it.  They called him the closest sounding Gaelic name - Padraig.  Later still, the English would find that way too Irish for their sensibilities.  It would be Anglicized to the name by which he became known to history - Patrick.

All that Patricius knew was that he was far from home and the incomprehensible had happened. His whole world had been turned on its head. He was sixteen years old, standing in deep shock in a slave market. The lack of clothing meant more than a lack of modesty.  He was freezing. He was hungry. He had no idea who was going to buy him, nor what they intended for him.

The sale was made in Antrim.  A local Rí - clan chief or king - named Miliucc liked what he saw in the boy's well nourished frame and strong constitution.  Patricius must have stood out amongst all his fellows in that slave pit. He'd been used to plenty of everything since birth, including the best cuts of meat and other good food.  He was a hale and healthy teenager surrounded by commoners.

Later accounts would call him a shepherd.  The notion of a flock being so consistent with the teachings of Christ.  St Patrick himself wrote letters in old age, which drew the analogy of his early days protecting sheep and his latter days tending a more spiritual, human flock.  He is usually depicted with a shepherd's crook in artwork.

But the reality was that the boy was thrown in with the pigs.  His job was to follow them all over the mountains, keeping them safe from predators and knowing their whereabouts for his master's butcher.  In one telling, this was on the slopes of Slieve Mish, aka Slemish, in County Antrim.  In another, it was around Fochill in County Mayo.

Either way it was cold.  Patricius never came in off that mountain and he was never given clothes to wear. Exposure to the elements was one of the greatest dangers to his life.  Nor was he afforded much to eat. The pigs ate far better than he did.  Near starvation kept him shivering, even when the weather was warm.  He was kept in this condition for six years.

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Treat your little one to a holiday telling of the tale of St Patrick, the man who converted the Irish to Christianity.

A Religion to Keep You Sane

When everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, then religion can easily be the light in the darkness.

Image: Slemish in County AntrimPatricius's grandfather had taken holy orders, ordained as a Catholic priest.  His son, Patricius's father, hadn't gone so far, but he was still religious.  He'd served the Church as a deacon and taught his children the gospel.

All of which was more than could be said of the youthful Patricius.  He confessed that, as a child, Christianity had kind of bored him.  He was not particularly devout, finding more entertainment in the tales of classical Rome and Greece than in the holy book.

This came back to haunt him now.  In his mental and emotional trauma, coupled with his physical endangerment, he looked back upon all of those missed masses and lip-service prayers; and he regretted them with all his heart and soul.  Lost and lonely, the teenager turned to the only Being he felt might be there with him.  He prayed to God.

Let's not underestimate this.  It wasn't a quick whisper somewhere between chasing a pig and finding somewhere relatively sheltered to sleep.  It was an almost constant state of half-starved, half-exposed meditation. It was a fevered one way dialogue between himself and the Almighty. As long as the pigs were safely doing their thing, Patricius was at prayer.

Then, one day, God answered back.

St Patrick in his Own Words

Read these books to discover what St Patrick - an educated man - wrote about his own mind, mission and life story.
The Confession of Saint Patrick and Letter to Coroticus

The autobiography of one of the most popular saints in history, now available in a new translation.Beyond being recognized as the patron saint of Ireland (perhaps for having cha...

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Patrick: In His Own Words

Bishop Joseph Duffy This book presents St. Patrick, using his own words, as a marvelous human being, who faced the mystery of life and death with exemplary courage and refreshin...

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St Patrick: The Real Story: As Told in His Own Words

St Patrick, uniquely among early Irish saints, has left us two documents written by his own hand. They are the Confessio and the Letter to Coroticus. Together they give us the o...

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St Patrick's breastplate (EXPO21)

For those who want to tackle serious prayer for any large issue, St Patrick is the man! His breastplate is one of the toughest and deepest challenges to prayer that there is. To...

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"You Are Going Home"

As may be expected, given the circumstances, what Patricius prayed for most of all was just to be allowed to go home.

He wanted his mother.  He wanted his father.  He wanted his family, friends and the familiar faces of his childhood.  He wanted food, warmth and consideration. He just wanted to go home.

Patricius had no reason to believe that it would actually ever happen.  At twenty-two years old, he was still naked, still half-starved, still scrabbling for shelter on a hillside. 

He knew that he was dispensable.  A lesser man would have been dead in days, but the plentiful meals of his youth had given him the physical strength to still be alive. If he'd died, then his master would have just bought another slave to take his place; and history would have forgotten him.

Patricius was dreaming. He lay as he always lay, huddled in a makeshift shelter, trying to keep warm in the night without cover.  But the voice felt more real than any dream had a right to be. "Your hungers are rewarded,"  It told him.  "You are going home."

Startled into waking, heart thundering, Patricius sat bolt upright in the darkness. It had been a dream.  He'd been asleep.  But the voice went on, as loud as if someone or something was sitting right there beside him.

It said, "Look, your ship is waiting."

Escape from Ireland

It was a flight against the odds. Even if he got away, past all of the patrols and look-outs, it was a long way home.

Image: Courtdown Beach, WexfordPatricius could be forgiven his confusion over the message, above and beyond even the medium of its delivery.  He was far inland, well away from the sea.  There wasn't a great profusion of ships anywhere in the vicinity.

But a little hope is a big thing.  It gave him courage and a sense of recklessness, which had hitherto been knocked out of him.  He left.  He just up and ran from the hillside, abandoning the pigs and his master. 

He couldn't go north.  That was straight into his master's stronghold, even if it was the nearest coastline.  He hurtled south instead, trying just to put enough distance between himself and his captors, before he found this fabled ship.

Along the way, he 'acquired' items.  Later in life, there would be oblique references to a 'sin', which many have taken to mean stealing.  He never gave the details, but this seems like a likely time in his life history.  He left his post naked, and he was dressed by the time he finally reached a port.  He also had money for the crossing.  St Patrick never did attempt to say that the good Lord had provided so practically, on the way to the coast in County Wexford.

Nevertheless, the Irish sailors treated this stranger with some suspicion.  Patricius stood bound in the confidence of an iron faith.  He had travelled over two hundred miles on foot to be there.  At no time was he pursued nor stopped.  He had passed through countless territories without being spotted, nor fingered as a runaway slave. 

Nor was there any turning back now.  He'd made it so far.  If he was sent back, then he'd be executed as an example to his fellow slaves.  It was do or die; but the voice had made promises in the darkness and there was a ship. It had to take him home.

The ship's captain laughed in his face.  "You're not coming on my boat. I have no idea who you are."   Behind him, his crew were loading up the cargo hold with prize hunting dogs.  Those Irish breeds fetched a high price on the Continent.  "Go away."

Stunned, his faith shaken and his confidence draining, Patricius turned to slope back to the hut he'd sheltered in overnight.  Automatically, his lips moved in a fervent prayer, while tears washed his eyes.  Let them change their minds.  Let them change their minds.

There was a yell.  It wasn't the captain, but another sailor standing by.  "Oy!  Go on, they're calling you!"

Patricius barely drew a breath.  He turned back to find that the last of the dogs were loaded and the captain was shouting his orders to cast off.  But the ship was waiting for him.  Patricius raced back, hope flaring again and his money clasped in his hand.

The captain was gruff and curt, "Ok, we'll take you on trust, but you'll have to go in with the dogs."

It's hard to imagine how Patricius must have felt, as he saw the Irish coastline receding far into the distance.  He never thought to see it again.  Six years after having been snatched from his parents, he was going home.  It was over.

Trailer for St Patrick, Apostle of Ireland

Movies and Documentaries about St Patrick

A Sort of Homecoming

Sometimes dreams actually do come true; and sometimes they take another form.

Image: Romano-British villaIt took months for Patricius to make his way back to Britain, and more weeks to walk back home.  The Irish dog traders had dropped him off in France, so he still needed to cross the English Channel. 

Yet he made it; and his family were waiting for him in Banna Venta Berniae.  They welcomed him in tearful disbelief; a beloved son and brother back inside the family fold.   And when his tale was told and thanks were given to God, Patricius's voice was the loudest, most emphatic of all.

It should have ended there.  Patricius's future reclaimed, his education could have gone on.  His plans to be Something Big in the Roman Empire had no obstacle now.  But the brash youth had been broken by those years in slavery; and his faith was strong.

Plus, it seemed that God had other plans for him.

Read on to Discover What Happened to Patricius

St Patrick is possibly the world's most famous patron saint. On March 17th, people all over the world will celebrate St Patrick's Day. But do you know his story?
The third part of the story brings us back to Ireland again. This time Patricius came, not in chains, but of his own free will and volition. He was on a mission from God.
In the final part of St Patrick's story, he takes on those who would really like him to shut up; and takes a stand against slavery.
Updated: 03/10/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 05/15/2013

I'm glad that you liked it. :) He was a fascinating bloke.

ologsinquito on 05/15/2013

I absolutely love this! I'll be reading all the installments.

JoHarrington on 02/14/2013

:D I'm glad that you thought so. :D

Ragtimelil on 02/14/2013

I thought I knew his history - but you make the story alive. WOW.

JoHarrington on 02/13/2013

You're welcome. :) I'm planning on writing part two tomorrow.

HollieT on 02/13/2013

Thank you, I really enjoyed this. It was good to learn more about St. Patrick. :)

JoHarrington on 02/13/2013

I'm glad that it moved you.

If you could see my desk at the moment, you'd see where it's all coming from. I have four different Irish history books lying open, with bits of paper stuffed into them like hedgehog spikes. It's always good to know that I've amalgamated these tidbits in an interesting way.

thebiologyofleah on 02/13/2013

Wow this is really interesting stuff- looking forward to part two! For someone whose holiday is so widely celebrated it is amazing his origin story isn't more widely known.

JoHarrington on 02/13/2013

I'm glad that you liked it. That poor lad... :( But he makes good in the end!

Mira on 02/13/2013

Oh yes, I'm looking forward to Part Two! :) This was very nice.

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