Debunking Some Myths about St. Patrick
Written by: Spenser White
Another saint’s day adopted by secular culture is upon us. March marks the celebration of the British saint, St. Patrick. What’s the big deal with this man, and why did I write “British”? Wasn’t Saint Patrick Irish? Saint Patrick, having not faded into the background of his holiday like Saint Valentine, is the center of many myths and legends. Some of the assumptions surrounding Patrick are true and others false. This information can be found in the book How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.
1.Saint Patrick was Irish.
Nope. Saint Patrick may have adopted Ireland as his home, but he was a Brit through and through. Saint Patrick, or Maewyn Succat, was born to a British family of Roman citizens in the early fifth century A.D. He writes with regret of his adolescence in his Confession, “[a]t that time, I did not know the true God.” He was kidnapped by pirates at sixteen and sold into slavery in Ireland. It was here he learned the language and culture. A few years later, after Patrick repented, he was praying one day, and God told him to leave Ireland. He found a ship and embarked back to England.
2.Saint Patrick used a shamrock to preach and explain the Trinity.
This story is highly likely, but unconfirmed. Saint Patrick was passionate about the Trinity, and Celtic Christianity as a whole is known for its robust poetry, prose, and art both explaining and worshipping the Trinity. However, the explanation of the shamrock, while easy to grasp, is technically not correct Christian doctrine (as is typically the case with concrete analogies of the Trinity). Specifically, the shamrock implies a heresy called Partialism, which states that each member of the godhead comprises one-third of it. This is incorrect because each member of the Trinity is God, not part of God. (For a humorous explanation of this and other misconceptions concerning the Trinity, watch this video from Lutheran pastor and comedian, Hans Fiene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw)
3.Saint Patrick single-handedly converted the whole of Ireland.
This is incorrect in two ways. There were already a few Christians in Ireland and even a bishop, but Saint Patrick did evangelize almost the whole of the island and saw many conversions. He also had helpers, especially after he converted some of the Irish inhabitants. One of his most famous friends is St. Brigid of Ireland. A daughter of a Christian slave woman and her Druid (Irish Pagan priest) master, Brigid’s father attempted to marry her to a bard after her conversion. Brigid refused and ran away to join Patrick in his evangelism. She eventually founded a convent at Kildaire, Ireland.
4.Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland.
Honestly, unconfirmed. Many non-Christians and Christians, following suit, claim that this is impossible. I choose, however, to think that maybe he did. Christians follow a God who parted an ocean, fed hundreds of thousands of people with bread from the sky and created the universe out of nothing. Is it too much to believe that he drove all the snakes off an island? Variations of this story, abound, further showing this story may be myth or allegorical. Maybe Patrick was upset that a snake had killed his friend; maybe he was bitten himself. The story goes that Saint Patrick, in a reverse pied piper moment, banished all snakes from the island. Personally, I want it to be literal, but it very well could be metaphorical (Patrick drove the snakes of paganism out of Ireland.) The story is beautiful and lighthearted even if it’s not accurate. Not all legends have to be entirely true to mean something to us. Whatever the case, there are no snakes on the island of Ireland.
5.Saint Patrick’s Day is a festival of Ireland and Irish-ness.
Kind of. The people of Ireland have used the festival as a beautiful, if not somewhat riotous, celebration of their culture. With its shamrocks, green dye, and parades, it is a vibrant celebration of Irish-ness. Fundamentally though, Saint Patrick’s Day is a celebration of the Christianization of a nation and the beginning of a vibrant faith tradition. This is something we all should celebrate, whether Swedish, Indian, or Irish ourselves.