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St Patrick on a stained glass window

Five surprising facts about St Patrick

St Patrick on a stained glass | Image: Image: CC BY-SA 4.0

You might know St Patrick’s Day as a holiday of celebration and revelry, but behind the boozy street parades and kitsch party decorations is the surprising story of an almost unrecognisable patron saint. Here are five surprising facts about the life and history of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

He wasn’t actually Irish

Born Maewyn Succat to a Romanized British family in 386AD, Patrick had wealthy parents in Wales. At the age of 16, his family’s estate was invaded by Irish pirates, and Patrick was captured along with many others. He was sold into slavery in the north of Ireland where he spent six years as a slave.

During his time in Ireland, Patrick discovered Christianity. He was forced to work as an isolated shepherd and spent the free time that he had worshipping and praying. After a voice spoke to him in a dream that encouraged him to escape his captors, Patrick managed to getaway.

He walked 200 miles to the Irish coast where he convinced a ship's captain to ferry him back to his British homeland.

He returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary

Shortly after his return, Patrick had a second dream that told him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Determined to bring the word of Christ to Ireland, Patrick travelled to Gaul where he would spend 15 years studying Christianity and eventually ordain as a priest.

He had two main goals. The first was to minister over the Christians that were already present in the country, and the second was to convert the Celtic pagans to Christianity.

Patrick wasn’t the only missionary in Ireland, but he is credited with having been the most successful in his conversion of the druidic and pagan Celtic country to a new religion.

He used existing pagan rituals and ceremonies

Patrick’s success in converting the Irish pagans might have come from his earlier years in the country as a slave. Being familiar with the local language, customs, and religious observances, Patrick was able to co-opt long-standing Celtic pagan traditions and imagery and relate them to Christian worship.

This included relating the trinity of the Irish Shamrock to the Holy Trinity (where previously the shamrock had been a marker for the celebration of the arrival of spring), using bonfires to celebrate Easter, and transposing the sun (a highly venerated source of life and abundance in paganism) onto the cross to create the Celtic Cross.

Being able to effectively communicate and relate to the native Irish population, along with the schools, monasteries and churches that he set up as he travelled the island, Patrick was particularly successful at winning the favour of the locals that he met along the way.

He didn’t banish snakes

Perhaps what he is best known for, Patrick is said to have been sainted after he drove all of the snakes out of Ireland and into the sea. The story goes that, while undertaking a sacred fast, Patrick was attacked by snakes. In response, he banished them into the sea, and snakes were never seen in Ireland again.

In truth, the island has never hosted snakes as the climate is far too harsh for the cold-blooded serpents to survive. It’s more likely that the snakes were symbolic of the druids and pagans (they did kidnap Patrick seven times throughout his 30-year mission, after all) that were refusing to convert from their heathenistic practices.

His associated colour is blue, not green

Traditionally St Patrick is associated with an azure blue, and not the shamrock green that has become popular in more recent history. In fact, St Patrick's blue is still the heraldic colour of Ireland.

Recent Americanised celebrations of St Patrick have turned the patron saint’s day of feasting into an annual celebration of all things Irish. Parades, partying, and substantial amounts of stout ale have become synonymous along with the bright shamrock green that we typically associate with the day, but more traditional celebrations include dancing, music, and mass.