Who was Saint Patrick?
Saint Patrick was a Roman-British and Christian missionary, who is the most generally recognized patron saint of Ireland or the Apostle of Ireland. Two authentic letters from him survive, from which come the only generally accepted details of his life. When he was about 16, he was captured from his home by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family.
After becoming a cleric, 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. By the seventh century, he had come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland. 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 AD 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. Saint Patrick's Day is observed on March 17, the date of his death. It is celebrated both inside and outside Ireland, as both a liturgical and non-liturgical holiday. In the dioceses of Ireland, it is both a solemnity and a holy day of obligation; outside Ireland, it can be a celebration of Ireland itself.
The Early Life of Saint Patrick
St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain at Banna Venta Berniae, a location otherwise unknown, though identified in one tradition as Glannoventa, modern Ravenglass in Cumbria. Calpornius, his father, was a deacon, his grandfather Potitus, a priest. When he was about sixteen, he was captured and carried off as a slave to Ireland.
Patrick worked as a herdsman, remaining a captive for six years. He writes that his faith grew in captivity, and that he prayed daily. After six years he heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home, and then that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he travelled to a port, two hundred miles away, where he found a ship and, after various adventures, returned home to his family, now in his early twenties.
Patrick recounts that he had a vision a few years after returning home:
"I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: "The Voice of the Irish". As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: "We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us."
A. B. E. Hood suggests that the Victoricus of St. Patrick's vision may be identified with Saint Victricius, bishop of Rouen in the late fourth century, who had visited Britain in an official capacity in 396.
The Death of Saint Patrick
According to the latest reconstruction of the old Irish annals, Patrick died in AD 460 on March 17, a date accepted by some modern historians. Prior to the 1940s it was believed without doubt that he died in 420 and thus had lived in the first half of the fifth century.
A lecture entitled "The Two Patricks", published in 1942 by T. F. O'Rahilly, caused enormous controversy by proposing that there had been two "Patricks", Palladius and Patrick, and that what we now know of St. Patrick was in fact in part a conscious effort to blend the two into one hagiographic personality. Decades of contention eventually ended with most historians[who?] now asserting that Patrick was indeed most likely to have been active in the latter half of the fifth century.
While Patrick's own writings contain no dates, they do contain information which can be used to date them. Patrick's quotations from the Acts of the Apostles follow the Vulgate, strongly suggesting that his ecclesiastical conversion did not take place before the early fifth century. Patrick also refers to the Franks as being pagans. Their conversion is dated to the period 496–508.
The Legends of Saint Patrick
Pious legend credits St. Patrick with banishing snakes from the island, chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill. This hagiographic theme draws on the mythography of the staff of the prophet Moses. In Exodus 7:8–7:13 , Moses and Aaron use their staffs in their struggle with Pharaoh's sorcerers, the staffs of each side morphing into snakes. Aaron's snake-staff prevails.
However, all evidence suggests that post-glacial Ireland never had snakes, as on insular "Ireland, New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Antarctica...So far, no serpent has successfully migrated across the open ocean to a new terrestrial home" such as from Scotland at one point only eight miles from Ireland, where a few native species have lived, "the venomous adder, the grass snake, and the smooth snake", as National Geographic notes, and although sea snake species separately exist. "At no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in Ireland, so [there was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish", says naturalist Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, who has searched extensively through Irish fossil collections and records.The List of reptiles of Ireland has only one land reptile species native to Ireland; the viviparous or common lizard.
The only biological candidate species for appearing like a native snake in Ireland is the slow worm, actually a legless lizard, a non-native species more recently found in The Burren region of County Clare as recorded since the early 1970s, as noted by the National Parks and Wildlife Service of Ireland, which suspects it was deliberately introduced in the 1960s. So far, the slow worm's territory in the wild has not spread beyond the Burren's limestone region which is rich in wildlife.
One suggestion, by fiction author Betty Rhodes, is that "snakes" referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids during that time and place, as evinced on coins minted in Gaul. Chris Weigant connects "big tattoos of snakes" on Druids' arms as "Irish schoolchildren are taught" with the way in which, in the legend of St. Patrick banishing snakes; the "story goes to the core of Patrick's sainthood and his core mission in Ireland."
Legend also credits St. Patrick with teaching the Irish about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity by showing people the shamrock, a three-leafed plant, using it to illustrate the Christian teaching of three persons in one God. For this reason, shamrocks are a central symbol for St Patrick’s Day. The shamrock had been seen as sacred in the pre-Christian days in Ireland. Due to its green color and overall shape, many viewed it as representing rebirth and eternal life. Three was a sacred number in the pagan religion and there were a number of "Triple Goddesses" in ancient Ireland, including Brigid, Ériu, and the Morrigan.
Saint Patrick and Irish Identity
St. Patrick features in many stories in the Irish oral tradition and there are many customs connected with his feast day. The folklorist Jenny Butler discusses how these traditions have been given new layers of meaning over time while also becoming tied to Irish identity both in Ireland and abroad. The symbolic resonance of the St. Patrick figure is complex and multifaceted, stretching from that of Christianity’s arrival in Ireland to an identity that encompasses everything Irish. In some portrayals, the saint is symbolically synonymous with the Christian religion itself.
There is also evidence of a combination of indigenous religious traditions with that of Christianity, which places St Patrick in the wider framework of cultural hybridity. Popular religious expression has this characteristic feature of merging elements of culture. Later in time, the saint becomes associated specifically with Catholic Ireland and synonymously with Irish national identity.
Subsequently, St. Patrick is a patriotic symbol along with the colour green and the shamrock. St. Patrick's Day celebrations include many traditions that are known to be relatively recent historically, but have endured through time because of their association either with religious or national identity. They have persisted in such a way that they have become stalwart traditions, viewed as the strongest "Irish traditions".
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