Americans are famous for secularizing and refitting religious holidays for commercial purposes. Christmas and Easter immediately come to mind as days that carry little resemblance to their former Christian penitential and sacred associations and are now more suited as materialistic seasons during which we are encouraged to purchase items for personal pleasure. St. Patrick’s Day, as well, has been transformed from a religious observance commemorating the baptism of the first Irish convert to Christianity to a day during which we enthusiastically drink green beer and sheepishly claim an undocumented Irish ancestral link.
As for the real Saint Patrick, your Irish grandmother may not know that the so-called Patrick of Ireland (c. 390-c. 461) was not Irish. Born and raised in Northumbria (the northcentral part of Romano-Britain) he fell victim to a very unsavory six-year encounter with Celtic pirates and slave traders. After escaping from slavery, he returned to Ireland as a missionary evangelist where he achieved notable success. Unfortunately, from our vantage point over the centuries, the details of his 30-year ministry in Ireland are obscure and has become the subject of many legends including stories about clover, snakes and walking sticks.
The good news is that we can reconstruct a few of the important events of the life of the great evangelist. For example, Patrick traveled throughout Ireland and he had considerable spiritual influence on the Irish chieftains of his day. There is little doubt that he broke the power of ancient Erse religiosity and that his teaching was scriptural, conforming to the standard Nicene Creedal orthodoxy of the time and that the church he founded was independent of Rome. Evidence supports that theory that he was probably buried in Downpatrick, Ireland. Patrick’s writings indicate no direct administrative connection with Rome, but he was much informed and inspired by the Latin (Vulgate) translation of the Bible then in common use. The Vulgate Bible was the magnum opus of the fourth century Italian priest and scholar Jerome. Linguistic and documentary considerations suggest that Patrick received his theological training in Britain; the peculiarities of his vulgar Latin, which he used, point to a Romano-British Celtic background. As the missionary founder of Celtic Christianity in Ireland, he will always be remembered for helping to establish one of the most vital and prolific of early Christian evangelistic efforts. Among his most talented later disciples was, Columba, who in the sixth century helped establish the great missionary monastic center Iona, in the Hebrides, that later served as the launching point for the evangelization of Gaelic-Scotland partly under the direction of the missionary evangelist Saint Aidan, who later founded the monastery at Lindisfarne.
This blog was written by Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Chair of the History Department Dr. Daniel Scalberg.