Facts About St. Patrick You Probably Didn’t Know

Tomorrow it will be time to put on your best green clothes, eat some corned beef, and celebrate Irish and Irish-American history. Or guzzle green beer and Guinness and spend the night at the ER. Hopefully the former, not the latter.

In honor of Ireland’s patron saint, I decided to share with you some little tidbits about him that you might not have known. For example, did you know…

“St. Patrick” was probably two men

Scholars and historians now think that the medieval legends surrounding St. Patrick combined his legacy with that of an earlier Christian missionary, St. Palladius. In essence, St. Patrick is famous for bringing Christianity to Ireland, but decades before he would arrive Pope Celestine sent Palladius to convert the Irish and become their first bishop.

St. Palladius mainly focused his missionary work in southern and eastern Ireland, while St. Patrick mainly preached in northern and western Ireland. The confusion of the two may have been an accident by medieval writers, but it also may have been intentional: in the 7th century, when the most famous biographies of St. Patrick’s life were written, the most powerful churches on the island were competing for supremacy over the whole of the island, and pointing to the legacy of “their saint” may have been a political move.

Fortunately, today’s historians need not depend on possibly biased accounts by medieval writers, because…

St. Patrick wrote an autobiography

The Confession of St. Patrick is a letter that Ireland’s patron saint wrote that briefly explained his life and his mission in Ireland. It is the only universally accepted account of his life. The saint tells us that he was born and raised in Roman-ruled Britain, when he was kidnapped as a teenager by Irish pirates and shipped off to Ireland as a slave. He managed to escape, and came out of the ordeal a much more faithful and spiritual man. He saw a vision a few years later, urging him to return to Ireland and spread his faith. He claimed to have baptized thousands, and founded churches and nunneries for his followers to worship. He persevered in spite of being beaten, robbed, and even imprisoned.

Yet his biggest challenge, and the reason for his taking up the pen to explain himself, was…

St. Patrick was embroiled in some kind of scandal

Didn't see that coming, did you?

Exactly what, we don’t know. Was he accused of taking bribes? Of some sort of sexual misconduct? We probably will never know, and neither will we know the outcome of the trial that he faced because of whatever-it-was. Since he was sainted, we would probably be safe in assuming he was acquitted.

But we do know that there were some sort of accusations made against him by fellow Christians, and that these accusations were brought to trial. His “Confession” is in essence a part of his defense against his accusers – he says as much in his writing. Unfortunately for today’s scholars, he never explicitly said what he was accused of. We can only get hints when he takes time to deny accepting “gifts” from “wealthy women” or for charging people money to be baptized.

But in the generations that followed, this scandal was buried by history and people filled St. Patrick’s tales with legend and lore, such as…

St. Patrick (allegedly) is the reason shamrocks are an Irish symbol

There is a legend in Ireland that St. Patrick made the shamrock sacred in Ireland, if unintentionally, when he gave a sermon to explain the Holy Trinity. Just as Christians believe God is one being but has three forms (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), shamrocks are one plant but have three leaves. The three-part-unity of the shamrock was a useful metaphor for God’s three-part-unity. This is why, the legend goes, shamrocks are so important to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and have become such an important symbol of the Emerald Isle.

Information from a biography I once saw on TV (but couldn’t find, sorry) and Wikipedia.

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