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Who was St. Patrick?

St. Patrick lived a life full of hardship and service. Although revelers celebrate his saint day with green beer and corned beef and cabbage, there’s obviously more to Ireland's patron saint than parades and shamrocks. So, who was St. Patrick, and what did he accomplish?

Early life

Shepherd with sheep on pathway surrounded by trees and grass
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St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish holiday, but St. Patrick himself was not Irish. He was born Maewyn Succat in Roman Britain (likely around present-day Scotland or Wales) circa 387 CE. As a young teenager, Succat was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. For the next several years, he worked as a shepherd in the hills of Ireland. At the time, Ireland was largely Druid and pagan land, but Succat, whose father was a deacon, stayed true to himself and his Catholic faith. Slavery made him a more devout Christian and brought him closer to God.

One night, when he was about 20 years old, Succat heard God tell him to leave Ireland by heading for the coast. When the opportunity presented itself, Succat escaped from his captors and started on his journey. He found a ship that offered passage to Britain, where he was reunited with his family.

Religious education

Aerial view of Auxerre, France with view of church and river
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After safely arriving back home, Succat heard God speak to him again. In his memoir, "The Confession of St. Patrick," Succat wrote that "in a vision of the night, I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as if from Ireland with innumerable letters … I read the beginning of the letter: 'The Voice of the Irish.'" The letter begged him to return to Ireland, calling him a "holy youth." This prompted Succat to begin his religious studies so that he could one day fulfill his destiny.

Succate traveled to Auxerre, France to study under the missionary Saint Germain. Upon becoming a priest, he chose the name Patricius (Patrick), meaning "father figure." By 432 CE, he was ordained as a bishop in the Catholic Church. Once he became a bishop, Pope Celestine I sent him to Ireland as a missionary to spread the word of God to the non-believers.

Life of service

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland
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Once in Ireland, Patrick wasted no time setting up churches, monasteries, and other centers of religious learning in every small town he visited. His goal was to set up a religious infrastructure so that Ireland could one day become ecclesiastically independent, which was no small task.

Every time he set up a new church, he appointed local leaders to continue the mission. Eventually, he was able to appoint his own bishops to lead the Catholic revolution in Ireland. The monasteries he built trained Irish missionaries, who went on to preach Christianity in Scotland and all over Europe. In a way, St. Patrick is responsible for the entire evangelization of Europe.

After 29 years as the Archbishop of Ireland, St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 CE. The religious seeds had been sown, and Ireland quickly became a predominantly Catholic country.

St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patricks day decorations and treats that are all green
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Because of his immense influence, St. Patrick is considered the Patron Saint of Ireland. His death date, March 17, became his feast day on which people come together to celebrate his memory and accomplishments. During his life, St. Patrick frequently used the shamrock as an example for the Holy Trinity, thus they became linked with his holiday.

Originally, St. Patrick’s Feast Day wasn’t a major holiday. When Irish immigrants started to move to America, St. Patrick’s Day turned from a small religious celebration to a secular celebration of Irish culture. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737, followed by New York City in 1762. Ironically, large St. Patrick’s Day celebrations weren’t adopted by Ireland until nearly 200 years later. Even then, it was celebrated only to benefit tourists—St. Patrick’s Day as we know it is an invention by Irish-Americans who were looking to celebrate their heritage in their new home.

Even the St. Paddy’s Day culinary staple of corned beef and cabbage is American. Early Irish immigrants were poor and couldn’t afford the salt pork that they were used to. They soon discovered the kosher corned beef that New York City's Jewish butchers sold, which was cheaper and blended well with cabbage dishes. The corned beef and cabbage combination became synonymous with Irish foods, and eventually with Irish culture and their beloved patron saint.

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