SAN JOSE, March 16, 2014— St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are primarily centered around becoming Irish for the day by dressing in green and enjoying a day of fun and zaniness. It is a celebration for celebration’s sake. Amazingly, the festivities have less to do with St. Patrick than with being Irish for a day, which essentially translates into having a wild and crazy time.
Many wanna-be-Irish celebrants would be surprised to learn that St. Patrick was not Irish. He was most likely born in Scotland, and was forcibly taken to Ireland as he was kidnapped and enslaved by his Druid captors.
People often mistake March 17 as a birthday celebration for St. Patrick. Actually, no one knows the true date when Patrick was born. March 17 is the known date when he died at ripe old age. Although it is not clear exactly when he was born, much speculation leads to the year of 387 AD, during the reign of Roman Emperor Theodocius I (r.379 to 395), who, after his own conversion, converted the entire Empire to Christianity in 380.
In addition, though it is not clear where baby Patrick was born, many historians have speculated that it was along the western coast of Britainnia somewhere between the border of present day Scotland and Hadrian’s Wall, which was built by the Romans to keep the ancient Picts away from the “civilized” Roman domain of Britainnia. Despite being born in Scotland, Patrick technically would not have become Scottish by birth. He was born a Roman citizen.
St. Patrick was born to parents who were Roman citizens, which would have made baby Patrick a citizen of Roman. He was born to Calpurnius and Conchessa, a Roman couple who gave their child an appropriate Roman name: “Patricius” which means “noble of the patrician class,” referring to the class that had ruled Rome since the early Republic. His father was a Decurion, or a cavalry officer, in command of Roman soldiers, who had been originally sent to the northern area of Britannia to keep order on the outskirts of a Roman Empire in decline. The Decurion’s troops would have had to deal with the Picts of Scotland and the Celts in Ireland, who had remained unconquered by the Romans.
Calpurnius also held the position of a tax collector for the Roman government, but amazingly enough, he served as a deacon in the Catholic Church as well. Patrick related in his writings that his grandfather, Potitus, was a Catholic priest, so he must have maintained some persuasion over his 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 a Christian under the guidance of his close family. However, his later testimony reveals that he cared little for his parent’s religion while still a youth, but when he was about 16, 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 Scottish coast, and Celtic slave raiders stormed the villa and captured the young man along with a number of other potential slaves. Put in irons, the slaves were marched to awaiting boats that took them across the Irish Sea to Ireland. Young Patricius was taken to a Druid Chieftain known as Milchu who forced him to tend his flocks of sheep on land in the northeast of Ireland believed to be in an area that is known today as County Antrim, where Belfast is located. It is in this area, supposedly near Slemish Mountain, where Patricius served as a shepherd for six years.
Looking back upon this time, St. Patrick later explained that he accepted his enslavement because he had committed a serious crime in which he broke religious laws (possibly one of the Ten Commandments). Because of this, he felt no desire to escape, but while a slave and out tending the sheep, he spent much time in prayer, repairing and re-developing a relationship with God. He declares in his “Confessio” his pride in the fact 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.”
During this period, as he tended the flocks, young Patricius grew up, and he testified that as he continued to pray, he began to develop a genuine relationship with God that fundamentally transformed his life. Eventually, he confessed that he heard God’s voice telling him that he could leave Ireland. When he first heard the voice, he dismissed it, and he could not believe he heard it – long before psychiatrists would describe this as “denial.” However, when Patricius heard the voice again, he moved past his resistance to the voice. Patrick write the voice was quite clear: “Behold, your ship is ready.” The also voice instructed him how to find the ship, but he would have to walk across Ireland to reach it.
After six years as a captive, he planned his escape, and later Patrick 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. His real fear was that fugitive slaves, when caught, were taken to the local king, punished, and returned to their masters who punished them again. Patrick realized that he could not ask for help for fear he would be discovered as a run-away once he opened his mouth and people heard his Scottish accent. He also explained later that he felt he had received permission to walk away from slavery, but no permission to break the Ten Commandments and he was determined not to steal food from others.
Patrick overcame the fear that Ireland had a fugitive slave law, and as for food, he had fasted quite often while in captivity, so the young slave was used to going without food. Stuffing the food his master would have provided for his meal into his pockets, Patrick made off in the middle of the night. The 200 mile trek from the north to the south and west of Ireland was not much of a problem for the young man, and he found the ship as the voice had directed him. However, Patrick explained that the most difficult portion of his journey was persuading the captain to provide him passage home. He would have to reveal himself to the ship’s captain and crew, which meant he was at their mercy.
Patrick related that he needed to be very clever with the last part of the escape to freedom. The ship’s captain could easily turn over the scrawny young man with a Scottish accent to the local authorities, or take him aboard with intent to sell him as a slave for personal profit. Hiding 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 right to the captain, he asked to join his crew. He was denied. One can imagine Patrick’s devastation. He had trusted in what he believed was God’s voice, and followed the directions, only 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. It was here he had a serious choice: Were they going to capture him, or offer him passage with the crew? He followed through on his faith, and walked back to face the captain again, who offered him a position with the crew. 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.
St. 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. Beyond this, while he was a young man, he had fallen in love with the land, and he had fallen in love with God in the Emerald Isle.
Common myths and misunderstandings may prevail regarding Ireland’s patron saint; yet, behind all of the myths, there is a very real man that contemporary celebrations completely miss.
Have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day!