O Me of Little Faith

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a little background information (from my upcoming book, Pocket Guide to Sainthood) about the patron saint of Ireland and notable Christian missionary:

St. Patrick
Ireland (5th century)
Feast day: March 17
Also known as: Patricius, Naomh Pádraig, Gaewyn

Sure, the dragon-slayers and hermits and pillar-sitters have been weird, but here’s where sainthood really gets fun, because: Pirates! St. Patrick, Ireland’s beloved saint and the sole reason for the existence of green beer, was born in Britain. But as a teenager, he was kidnapped by — wait for it — pirates and sold as a slave to an Irish landowner. The master forced the young lad to tend sheep, and Patrick whiled away the long, boring hours by praying. A lot. By his account, up to a hundred times a day. Several years into his slavery, God appeared to him in a dream and told him to head for the coast. So Paddy escaped (or was freed…the historical account is fuzzy), traveled some 200 miles to a seaport, befriended a few burly sailors, and enjoyed a little more adventure on the high seas before returning to his family.

Patrick then entered the church and began training for the priesthood. Before long, another vision — in this one he heard the people of Ireland calling him “to come and walk among us” — convinced him to return to the land of his slavery. So he did, and is known for a variety of pious activities there which may or may not have actually occurred. These include the following:

a) performing countless miracles and converting thousands of people, including pagan kings and their entire kingdoms;

b) explaining the concept of the Trinity by using a three-leaf shamrock; and…

c) driving all the snakes out of Ireland by herding them into the sea, which is why he is often depicted with a handful of slithery companions. [Footnote: It should be noted that the surrounded-by-water, post-glacial geography of Ireland has never been a very good snake habitat, so giving St. Patrick credit for the lack of snakes in Ireland is like giving Frank Sinatra credit for the lack of polar bears in Las Vegas. Most historians think the “snakes” are a metaphor for the pagan Druids.]

Obligatory Weird Miracle Story: Legend has it that a druid chieftain named Dichu tried to stop Patrick from entering Ireland as a missionary. Dichu lifted his sword to smite him, but Dichu’s arm suddenly became rigid, and he was unable to move it until he pledged his obedience to Patrick. And thus Dichu became the saint’s first convert.

Random Fact: Some historical sources claim St. Patrick died in 461. But the Annals of Ulster, an ancient chronicle of Irish history, report that Patrick was born in 373 and died in 493. The Pocket Guide can’t solve the matter, but this is certain: Living another three decades after everyone thinks you’ve died? No picnic.

Read more about Patrick at today’s “St. Patrick Revealed” at Slate.

And here’s Dan Kimball with some thoughts about Patrick’s missionary prowess.

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