SAN JOSE, March 17, 2017— The merriment surrounding Saint Patrick misses the history of a boy who was kidnapped and plunged into the abyss of slavery who grew into a young man who challenged death to escape to freedom only to return to the land of his slave masters to bring to them a consciousness of Christianity.
Many wanna-be-Irish celebrants may be surprised to learn that Saint Patrick had been a slave; however, perhaps more may not even care. Those who celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day are likely to be more focused on being Irish for a day, having a wild and crazy time, than being concerned about the man who is being honored by the celebrations.
Such celebrants are usually centered upon dressing in green and enjoying a day of fun, a celebration for celebration’s sake, and the festivities often have a little to do with Saint Patrick, the man or the Christian.
One mistaken perception is that March 17th is a birthday celebration for Saint Patrick. Actually, it is not. No one knows the true date when Patrick was born, but March 17th is the known date when he died at ripe old age. Speculation as to the year of his birth leads to the year of 387 AD, during the reign of Roman Emperor Theodosius I (r.379 to 395), who, after his own conversion, converted the entire Empire to Christianity in 380 AD.
Another mistaken perception many people striving to be Irish for the day are shocked to learn is that Saint Patrick was not Irish himself. Though it is not clear exactly where he was born, many historians have speculated that it was along the western coast of Britannia near an area known today as Dunbarton, Scotland.
Dunbarton is located between the border of present day Scotland and the ancient Hadrian’s Wall, which was built by the Romans to keep the barbaric Picts away from the “civilized” Roman domain of Britannia.
Additionally, it would be a mistake to assume that since Patrick was born in an area that would be considered Scotland today, he would have been Scottish by birth, or at least British.
Actually, since this area was on the outermost frontier of the Roman Empire, and since his parents were both Roman citizens, their baby was born a Roman citizen. Of Roman nobility, the couple, Calpurnius and Conchessa, gave their child the appropriate Roman name of “Patricius,” which means “noble of the patrician class,” referring to the class that had ruled Rome since the early Republic.
Calpurnius and Conchessa were wealthy Roman citizens and Calpurnius held the position of a tax collector for the Roman government. Amazingly Patricius also served as a deacon in the Catholic Church. Patrick related in his writings that his grandfather, Potitus, was a Catholic priest, so he must have maintained some persuasion over the family in religious matters.
It is important to note that at this period in the development of the early Roman Catholic Church, priests were not prohibited from marrying and raising a family, and young Patricius was raised as a Christian under the guidance of his close family.
Yet, by his own later testimony, Saint Patrick reveals that he cared little for his parent’s religion while still a youth until he was about 15 or 16 years old, when his life changed forever. One ominous day, while his parents were in the nearby village, Patricius was home at the family’s country villa near the coast, and Celtic raiders stormed the villa and captured the young man along with a number of other potential slaves.
Put in irons, the slaves were taken across the Irish Sea to Ireland. Young Patricius was sold as a slave to a Druid Chieftain known as Milchu who forced him to tend his flocks of sheep.
Although historians differ on this point, the area where young Patrick may have served as a slave for six years is believed to be near Slemish Mountain, which is known today as County Antrim, near Belfast. However, another view places Patrick’s enslavement in County Mayo near the Western Sea (northwest Atlantic Coast). Regardless of the exact location, looking back upon his six-year period of slavery, Saint Patrick later explained that he accepted his enslavement because he had committed a serious sin and broke religious laws (possibly one of the Ten Commandments).
As a result of his crime, he nurtured no desire to escape.
During this six years of slavery, while out tending the sheep, he spent much time in prayer, repairing and redeveloping a relationship with God. He declares in his “Confessio” that he prayed every day, several times a day:
“… and the faith grew in me, and the spirit was roused, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same, so that whilst in the woods and on the mountain, even before the dawn, I was roused to prayer and felt no hurt from it, whether there was snow or ice or rain; nor was there any slothfulness in me, such as I see now, because the spirit was then fervent within me.”
As Patrick grew into a man, he continued to pray, and he testified that he began to develop a genuine relationship with God, a relationship that would fundamentally transform his life. Eventually, he confessed he heard God’s voice telling him that he would soon be leaving Ireland and going home. When he first heard the voice, he dismissed it, as it was difficult to believe God had spoken to him. However, when Patricius heard the voice again, he moved past resistance voice writing that the voice was quite clear: “Behold, your ship is ready.” The voice also instructed him that he would have to walk across Ireland to find the ship.
After six long years as a captive, Patrick planned his escape, and later he explained that the hardest part was not the journey, for he was a healthy young man and had endured all kinds of weather during the years he tended the flocks. One truly serious concern was that any fugitive slaves, when caught, were taken to the local king, punished, and returned to their masters who punished them again. Patrick feared seeking help as once he spoke, and his British accent was heard, he was afraid he would be discovered as a run-away.
Patrick overcame his fears but only, he explained, because he had received permission form God to run away from slavery. Determined not to break the Ten Commandments, Parick was determined not to steal food from others. Fasting quite often while in captivity the young slave was used to going without food. Stuffing only the food his master would have provided for his daily meal into his pockets, Patrick made off in the middle of the night.
Stuffing only the food his master would have provided for his daily meal into his pockets, Patrick made off in the middle of the night.
The 200-mile trek across Ireland was not much of a problem for the young man, but he had to travel by night, facing the perils of the wilderness and the marshes in the center of the Emerald Isle where many had perished attempting to follow the pathway across the marshes. Yet, choosing the wrong path through the marshes was not the biggest concern.
After crossing the land, he found the ship where he had been told it would be; however, Patrick explained, the most difficult part of his journey would be persuading the captain to provide him passage home. He had to open his mouth and he had to reveal himself to the ship’s captain and crew, leaving him at their mercy. The ship’s captain could easily turn over the scraggly young man with a British accent to the local authorities or take him aboard with intent to sell him as a slave for personal profit.
Before approaching the ship, Patrick hid in the woods, watching the crew load the ship, he recognized the captain as the one ordering the others around. He waited patiently until he felt that the ship was ready to leave port, without any time left to report him to authorities. Going boldly right up to the captain, he asked to join his crew.
The captain looked him over and denied him any opportunity.
One may imagine Patrick’s devastation in that he believed he was following God’s directions and now seemed doomed to fail at the end of his long journey. Yet, it was a new start, and not an end. As Patrick walked away back to where he had been hiding he continued praying. As he did, one of the crew called to him to come back. Were they going to capture him, or offer him passage with the crew?
He returned filled with faith and facing the captain and first mate once again they offered him a position with the crew.
Young Patrick was able to sail away from his emerald prison and eventually made it back to his home. But, the six years as a slave had changed him forever. Saint Patrick’s testimony later in his life reveals how much during this time he transformed:
“God used the time to shape and mold me into something better. He made me into what I am now – someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care about others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.”
When Patrick went back to Ireland as a Bishop of the Church, he had no fear of the Druid’s religious beliefs, nor any fear of the barbaric methods of intimidation toward other religions from the Druid priests and chieftains who controlled the country. During his time as a slave he had fallen in love with God in the Emerald Isl, and after returning home, he discovered he had fallen in love with the land and the Irish people.
His new hope centered on helping them fall in love with God too.
Common myths and misunderstandings may prevail regarding Ireland’s patron saint; yet, at the heart of the myths, there is a very real man that contemporary celebrations completely miss.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!