St Patrick's not Irish? 6 questions answered by an expert!

St Patrick is honoured as the patron saint of Ireland (although in medieval times there were two other patrons: Saint Brigid and Saint Colum Cille). His feast day is celebrated in many other parts of the world, especially in countries such as the USA where the Irish have settled in great numbers. The 17th March is the day he is believed to have died. Saints' feast days usually occur on the day that they died. Since the second century AD the anniversary of a saint's death has been commemorated not as a day of mourning but as a 'feast day', in Latin the dies natalis or the saint's 'second' birthday, the day they were reborn into the next life - into heaven. 

I've heard many stories about St Patrick, however I didn't realise that our patron saint may not have been Irish at all!? Shock horror! When in doubt, ask the experts - so I asked our very own Dr. Brian Lacey if he would answer some questions about our patron saint. 

Brian is a renowned historian and archaeologist and has been researching the archaeology and early medieval history of Co.s Donegal and Derry for 40 years. A former university lecturer and museum director in Derry, he directed the archaeological survey of Donegal (1979-83). His particular specialism is the lore of St Colmcille and he will be personally guiding the exclusive Connecting Colmcille Tours in June and August 2015He has also written 12 books and many research papers. So here's the questions I asked Brian:

1 - Was St Patrick born in Ireland? 

Although he is frequently linked with Irish nationalism, paradoxically Patrick was actually British – the traditional enemies of the Irish. He was probably born at the end of 4th century in Britain which was still under Roman rule at the time. Christianity had been the official religion of the Empire for most of that century. Patrick's grandfather was a Christian priest (possibly even a bishop) and his father a church deacon as well as being a minor Roman official, probably a tax-collector.  Unlike Britain, Ireland had never been conquered by the Romans and was outside the Empire although there were, of course, trading and other connections. 

2 - How long did he spend in Ireland? 

Patrick was kidnapped by Irish Celtic raiders when he was about sixteen years old and spent six years in Ireland as a slave herding animals. Although nominally Christian since his childhood, he underwent a profound religious conversion during his captivity. He eventually escaped and got back to his homeland when he was about twenty-two years of age, he experienced a desire ('dreams' and 'visions') to go back to Ireland to convert its pagan inhabitants to Christianity. We know all this from two letters that he wrote.  

3 - What was St Patricks greatest contribution to Ireland? 

In a technological sense, apart from his religious achievements, Patrick's greatest contribution to Irish culture was that he brought the skills of reading and writing to the island. Christianity is a religion of a book – the Bible. Christianity – although not necessarily for all its members - is not possible without the allied skills of reading and writing. Those who study the past distinguish between the 'historic' and the 'prehistoric' periods.  The 'historic' is the time from which we have written material which enables us to reconstruct 'history'.  St Patrick, as one modern historian called him, is the 'portal' into Irish history.  Other than some basic stone carvings in a script known as Ogham, Patrick's two letters are the oldest written material from Ireland that still survive. 

4 - Was St Patricks day always a celebration? 

The 17th March festivities are not always particularly Christian. St Patrick is thought of as almost a brand-name, recognised and celebrated in many places that have no particular connection with Ireland or with the Christian religion. But the medieval records about him are quite confused, to the point that it was often said in the past that there must have been at least two St Patricks! In Ireland until recent decades, St Patrick's Day was marked mainly as a quiet religious occasion.  The flamboyant festival nowadays associated with the saint is largely a modern export from the USA.  St Patrick's Day parades originated mainly among Protestant Irish units of the British Army in America in the 18th century, although they were increasingly taken over by Catholic Irish emigrant institutions in the 19th century.  All this is a far cry from the humbleness of Patrick himself.  

5 - Do you consider St Patrick an Irish hero?

Like all medieval saints, Patrick's genuine story was expanded and inflated for both religious and secular political purposes from shortly after the time of his death.  But we can strip back a lot of the later accumulations of propaganda to reveal a truly historic and heroic individual who is not tied to any modern political or religious tradition but belongs to all the people of Ireland and, increasingly, to people of different religions and none in many other parts of the world.

6- The legends of St Patrick, are they true? 

Two of the best known legends about Patrick are definitely not historically true.  He is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland.  Snakes were used in medieval literature as a metaphor for the devil and evil. But there never were any snakes in Ireland – they simply never reached the island naturally after the last Ice Age. Patrick is also linked with the shamrock, a tiny three-leaved plant belonging to the clover family, which has been used in modern times as a symbol of Ireland. Legend – not dating any earlier than about 1700 - claims that Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Christian mystery of the Holy Trinity – three leaves but one plant! But, as we know from ancient literature and from sculptures dating from the Iron Age, the Irish already believed in three-person gods and goddesses long before Christianity arrived on the island. 

Thank you Brian for taking the time out for this, its' all so interesting, so many questions, I just want to know more and more. If you're into Irish history and would like to spend a week in the company of Dr. Brian Lacey, here in Donegal as we journey back through the centuries and follow in the foot steps of Irelands other mythological and historical giant - St ColmcilleCheck out mng's world premier tour, Connecting Colmcille or Ceangal Cholmcille as gaeilge. These are very specialist tours with two exclusive dates and only 15 places on each. You can find more information by clicking here.

Lá fheile Pádraig shona / Happy St Patricks day! And do comment, share or like below. Go raibh maith agat. 

Dr. Brian Lacey left, Moira Ní Ghallachóír, founder of mng middle, Patti Holly, Áras Colmcille, Derry right, at the launch of the Connecting Colmcille tour

Dr. Brian Lacey left, Moira Ní Ghallachóír, founder of mng middle, Patti Holly, Áras Colmcille, Derry right, at the launch of the Connecting Colmcille tour