St. Patrick is arguably the most famous saint associated with Ireland. His feast day is celebrated around the world and is a common symbol of Irish patriotism. His legends have become commonplace in our understanding of Ireland, and the image of the bishop with a clover is an immediately recognizable symbol for many. But despite his popularity we know very little about the actual man. It would seem the legend of St. Patrick has become far more famous than the historical individual.
Without further ado, I present to you 16 facts about the real St. Patrick.
- His real name may not have been Patrick. We don’t know for certain what his birth name was, but tradition holds it was Maewyn Succat. He only later changed it to Patrick when he became a bishop, as it means “nobleman” in Latin.
- There are surviving copies of texts written by St. Patrick. Two Latin works called “Confessions” and the “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.” These works provide the primary sources for what we know of him.
- Dating St. Patrick’s life is difficult, but most estimates place him around the mid fifth century. Given that he refers to the Frankish people (who lived in in places where Germany and France are now) as pagans in one of his works, this implies it was written between 451, with a large amount of Franks spilling into Gaul (most of what is today Western Europe), and 496, when the Franks were baptized in large numbers.
- There is a prayer said to have been written by St. Patrick, entitled “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” but him being the author is now widely rejected by scholars.
- No one knows where St. Patrick was born. It’s a widely accepted fact that St. Patrick is not an Irish native and is probably from Wales, but his specific birthplace is unclear. In his own works he says he’s from a place called Bannavem Taburniae, but this location is otherwise unknown.
- St. Patrick was not the first Christian Bishop in Ireland. That honor goes to the fifth century bishop Palladius. Palladius was a Roman Catholic Deacon who was sent by the Church to convert the Irish natives. Some speculate this person was adopted by folklore and combined with the later Patrick to form his legend.
- He didn’t drive snakes from Ireland. Everything we know about biology tells us that Ireland was never a home to any snakes. The story has been explained as being a metaphor for Patrick converting of the remaining native Druids to Christianity. But pagan practices continued long after St. Patrick lived, so the exact meaning of the story is unknown.
- Almost all the stories we have about St. Patrick were written centuries after he died. Two commonly cited sources are “The Life and Acts of St. Patrick” by a Jocelin of Furness, who wrote around 1200, and “The Most Ancient Lives of Saint Patrick” by an unknown MacEvin who wrote his works in the ninth century.
- St. Patrick gives only the names of his father, Calpornius, and paternal grandfather, Potitus. He says his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest. Though later writers further explained his family tree. Jocelin and MacEvin say his mother was a Frankish woman named Conceis. Conceis was said to be related to Saint Martin of Tours. Though MacEvin claims she was his sister and Jocelin says she was his niece.
- St. Patrick never mentions having any siblings in his works, but Jocelin and MacEvin claim he had a sister named Lupita.
- From St. Patrick’s own works, we gather he was kidnapped from his home at about the age of sixteen and brought to Ireland alongside thousands of others to be sold as slaves. Patrick worked as a shepherd for six years. Jocelin says he was slave to a pagan prince named Milcho, though Patrick says nothing specific of his captor. Saying only he was “the man with whom I had been for six years”.
- Jocelin and MacEvin ascribe many miracles to St. Patrick in his youth, and describe him as pious from his early years. Though Patrick himself seems to contradict these statements. In reference to his capture in his youth, he says that “at that time, I did not know the true God”.
- St. Patrick is often said to have used the shamrock to explain to the Irish pagans the concept of the Trinity. Despite the fame of this story the shamrock or its significance to such a way is never mentioned in any work by St. Patrick and is apparently a much later legend attached to him.
- St. Patrick, despite being known as the Patron Saint of Ireland, was never formally canonized. His recognition as a saint was done through popular opinion, and likely with the approval of a bishop. Though he’s far from the only saint to never have been formally canonized. In fact, the church had no formal process for sainthood until the twelfth century. So it’s safe to assume St. Patrick will always be considered a saint.
- The date of the 17th of March was chosen for St. Patrick’s feast day on account of it being the day he is said to have died. The year was said to have been 461, but we do not know for certain.
- The St. Patrick you know may in fact be based on several people. While we are quite certain that St. Patrick was a historical person, it’s possible that the folkloric character may be derived from two different people. Patrick of Wales and the previously mentioned bishop Palladius. The two bishops had stories about them circulating until they became one unified preacher.