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The Legend of St. Pat

By E. P. Ned O’Burke

Saint Patrick is perhaps the most misunderstood and misrepresented saint in the history of the Church. It seems, every year at this time, some historian will come along and claim there was never a St. Patrick in the first place.

Or, as one noted authority believes, there were really three Patricks who were eventually blended into one legendary character. Also, you can be certain someone will point out that St. Patrick was not an Irishman at all. To the chagrin of some wearers of the green, a few years ago in a newspaper article, one historian stated St. Patrick was an Italian.

Most authorities on this subject cannot even agree on Patrick’s date of birth. Some claim he was born in France in the year 387. Others say it was in western Britain, near the Welsh border, and the year was 385. His father, one claims, was an official of the Roman Government. Then an equally reliable source contends that Patrick’s father was a deacon, and his father’s father was a priest. It appears the only agreement among historians is that at the age of sixteen young Patrick was captured by sea raiders and taken to Ireland where he was sold into slavery. His eventual escape from there again leads to disagreement. Some claim he was “miraculously freed,” while others, referring to Patrick’s own written words in his “Confession,” believe that Patrick trudged some 200 miles and boarded a ship destined for France.

This period, following his return to France, is cloudy and uncertain. One legend has it Patrick spent three of these years at a monastery on a small island off the coast of France. Some historians are convinced this is where the legend of St. Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland originated. For it was on this small island that St. Honoratus, not St. Patrick, drove the snakes from the small island in order to build a monastery. Those same historians point out that long before Patrick came on the scene Ireland was recognized as a snakeless state.

After returning to Britain, we are told that Patrick was confronted with a vision to bring the Gospel of God to Ireland. In 432, Pope Celestine sent Patrick to Ireland to fulfill this vision.

It is true Patrick was very successful in converting the pagan inhabitants and in teaching them the word of God. One reason for his immediate success seems to be found in an old Irish Prophesy that said, “One shall arrive here, having his head shaven in a circle, bearing a crooked staff … ” Although legend pictures St. Patrick with long hair and a beard, many historians admit he was most likely clean-shaven and partially bald for that was the custom then for those who were trained in a monastery, or who spread the monastic way of life.

Even Patrick’s physical features are a matter of controversy. Today, he is portrayed as a tall, heavyset individual. According to the Cisterian monk Jocelyn, however, “Patrick was a dwarf.” In fact, Jocelyn claims Patrick had a man named McCarthy traveling with him whose job it was to carry Patrick over creeks and rivers. If this man wasn’t exceptionally strong, then Patrick must have been exceptionally light.

We celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick on March 17 because this was the day he is believed to have died. It was in the year 461 and Patrick was 76 years of age. Then again, as another source contends, Patrick lived to the ripe old age of 106!

Perhaps, some day, St. Patrick will come down here and straighten out this whole mess, once and for all.

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