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The True Story of St. Patrick

The historical, faithful man behind the legends, parades and green beer.

Four years ago, I was able to cross an item off my do-before-I-die list: I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland—Dublin to be exact. And I was a little disappointed.

After shivering in the drizzle/snowfall for a few hours with thousands of other St. Patrick’s Day fans from around the globe, my friends and I witnessed a sad little parade. There were a few dance groups, a couple of bands, and some weird bobble-head creatures walking down the street. That was the parade. In Dublin. On St. Patrick’s Day.

What is true is that Patrick had enough of an impact on the Irish for them to take his holiday around the world.

Turns out, St. Patrick’s Day has been a mostly religious holiday for the Irish. They have only recently begun to offer attractions for the tourists around March 17. My parade experience was four years ago, so conditions may be better now. However, the tour guide suggested that next time I want to see a good St. Pat’s parade, I should go to New York City.

In America, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day differently. We dress in green (or get pinched), we dye our rivers green and we drink lots of beer (some of it green). Rarely, though, do we consider the man behind the holiday—Patrick, a missionary to Ireland.

What Patrick’s life was actually like is difficult to determine. I don’t think it helps that he’s popular in Ireland, and many Irish have the gift of blarney. Therefore, the stories about Patrick’s life and ministry in Ireland seem a little outlandish at times. Many of them are, most likely, exaggerated.

With that being said, we do know, with a little more certainty, that Patrick was born in Britain, but captured and sold into slavery in Ireland as a teen. From there, it gets a fuzzier. He was probably put to work as a shepherd. Though he was not very religious at the time, he often prayed in the fields. One day, God told him to escape and start walking, so he did. He ended up at a beach, right as a ship was about to leave for the continent. He persuaded them to take him aboard and somehow eventually ended up in a monastery in France. Sometime later, perhaps after returning home to Great Britain, Patrick had a dream where an Irishman asked him to come back to Ireland to spread the Gospel. He was largely uneducated, because of the whole slavery thing, so he had to fight a little before the church would allow him to become a missionary to the Irish.

When he finally got to Ireland, the miracles really began to rack up. You may have heard that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland, but that is not all. It has also been reported that he once survived poisoning, that his fingers turned into flashlights on a particularly dark night, and that he turned an evil ruler into a fox. During this time, he is also known to have used the shamrock to explain the Trinity—the three leaves representing the three parts of God in one Being. When he died on March 17 (the year is debatable), the sun refused to set. For twelve days and nights, it shone as if it were day. And every March 17, fish rise from the sea, pass by St. Pat’s alter, and return to the water. Blarney? Perhaps.

Patrick had a dream where an Irishman asked him to come back to Ireland to spread the Gospel.

What is true is that Patrick had enough of an impact on the Irish for them to take his holiday around the world. Though, our traditions may have become a little skewed from the original celebrations. We wear green on that day mainly because it happens to be in the spring. We drink beer because, well, the Irish are famous for loving that particular beverage.

When I celebrated the day in Ireland, there weren’t a whole lot of people around who were actually from Ireland. People from all over were in Dublin, celebrating their roots; whether or not they are aware, their roots include a man who followed the call of God to share the Gospel with his enemies. Patrick returned to the land of his enslavement to convert the people from paganism to Christianity. Whether you take in a parade, visit a green river or drink a pint of Guinness, this March 17, remember the man behind the day, and maybe invite your enemy to celebrate too.

24 Comments

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case22 commented…

No, he said Ihe was irritated, not offended. And really he was pretty light hearted about it I thought. Guess someone could have read into it the wrong way... what is ironic is that as a youth pastor you assert your authority in blogs becase you are stripped of it by your senior pastor who can't grasp the complete relevancy of youth ministry. I hope the best for you.

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magsbe commented…

Hum......so as an Irish person your description of being in Ireland on Paddy's day seems about right for a tourist. To truly experience St Patrick and his legacy in present day Ireland i'd recommend you get off the tour bus and meet the people of Ireland, and it's passionate believers.
To most Irish people (home & abroad) it is what we locals call a "piss up" fest and a day off work! However there is a growing community of people who are part of his legacy, who a trying to reach the island with both the passion and wisdom of a man who knew the living God and lived to share that god with others. Check out this website for one such group: www.saintpatrickfoundation.org

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Mark commented…

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Cathy Reisenwitz commented…

If you want to hear the whole, really interesting story, check out Cahill's book How the Irish Saved Civilization. It's an awesome book that chronicles how after Rome fell the books would have been lost if not for the Irish and St. Patrick.

John Fitzsimmons

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John Fitzsimmons commented…

Hey Elizabeth, if you want to see a good authentically Irish Paddy's day parade don't go to Dublin, go to the smaller towns & villages in Ireland. Their's loads of parades to choose from. My favorite is in Kiltimagh, Co Mayo. But if you go to almost any rural part of Rep of Ireland (which there is a lot off) you can go from parade to parade in different towns & villages & meet loads of locals.

Also if your looking a good biography that will leave you feeling like you've met the real Patrick in person I recommend 'St. Patrick of Ireland' by Philip Freeman.

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