Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was born in either Scotland, England, Wales, or France, but definitely not in Ireland. His given name was not Patrick but Maewyn. Or Succat. He barely became bishop of Ireland, because his superiors felt he lacked the finesse and scholarship the position called for. Nevertheless, he did do something that made him a saint and merited him a holy day—now more of a holiday.
Many facts about Patrick have been distorted under the weight of Irish folklore. He was born about A.D. 385, most likely in a small village near the mouth of the Severn River in what is now Wales. The region was part of the vast Roman Empire. He was by the locale of his birth Romano-Briton, by parentage a Roman Catholic; by his own later admission, until age sixteen he was covetous, licentious, materialistic, and generally heathen. When he was sixteen, a group of Irish marauders raided his village and carried off Patrick and hundreds of other young men and women to be sold as slaves. For six years, he toiled as a sheepherder in County Antrim, Ireland, and it was during this period of slavery and solitude that he felt an increasing awareness of God. One of his two published works. Confession, in which he renounces his heathen bent, begins: “I, Patrick, a sinner, the most rustic and the least of all the faithful…”
Escaping Ireland and slavery, he spent a dozen idyllic, studious years at a monastery in Gaul under the tutelage of St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre. Germain instilled in Patrick the desire to convert pagans to Christianity. As a priest, Patrick planned to return to pagan Ireland as its first bishop. But his monastery superiors felt that the position should be filled by someone with more tact and learning. They chose St. Palladius. Patrick waited for two years, until Palladius transferred to Scotland. By the time he was appointed Ireland’s second bishop, he had already adopted the Christian name Patrick.
His imposing presence, unaffected manner, and immensely winning personality aided him in winning converts, which aggravated Celtic Druid priests. A dozen times they arrested him, and each time he escaped. Eventually, he traveled throughout Ireland, founding monasteries, schools, and churches, which would in time transform the non-Christian country into the Church’s proud “Isle of Saints.”
After thirty years of exemplary missionary work, Patrick retired to Saul in County Down, where he died on March 17, his commemorated “death day,” in or about the year 461. He is believed to be buried in Downpatrick, and many pilgrims each year visit a local tombstone, carved with a “P,” which may or may not mark his grave.