City of Brass

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Since the holiday has basically become a secular celebration of Irish culture, and an excuse to turn the Chicago River green for a few hours, ol’ St Pat has become something of a global icon. But I was curious about just who the real, historical St. Patrick was, so I turned to Wikipedia for some answers:

Saint Patrick (c. 387 – 17 March, 493) was a Romanized-Celt, a Romano-Briton and Christian missionary, who is the most generally recognised patron saint of Ireland (although Brigid of Kildare and Colmcille are also formally patron saints).

Two authentic letters from him survive, from which come the only universally accepted details of his life. When he was about 16 he was captured from Britain by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family. After entering the Church, he returned to Ireland as an ordained bishop in the north and west of the island, but little is known about the places where he worked.

Most available details of his life are from later hagiographies from the seventh century onwards, and these are not now accepted without detailed criticism. Uncritical acceptance of the Annals of Ulster would imply that he lived from 340 to 440, and ministered in what is modern day northern Ireland from 428 onwards. The dates of Patrick’s life cannot be fixed with certainty, but on a widespread interpretation he was active as a missionary in Ireland during the second half of the fifth century.

Patrick was a missionary, unlike his contemporary Palladius whose goal was to minister to Christian communities in Ireland; the “Two Patricks Theory” says that many of the traditions associated with Patrick were actually attributable to Palladius instead.

Imagine Ireland of the 5th century – in transition from Roman rule and from paganism to Christianity, still a century before Islam. St Patrick was essentially part of the final push of monotheism to displace paganism from Europe. It is interesting to note that Islam had its own pagan conversion period within the Arabian peninsula, but by the time it expanded beyond, the rest of the world was mostly monotheist already – there never was a real pagan frontier like Ireland was. I can’t help but be sympathetic to St. Patrick, and view him with respect, because in a way he was spreading the shared dawah of Abrahamic faith.

And hey, the color of St Patricks’s Day is green, just like Islam!

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