Belfast Telegraph

A teenage atheist who didn't banish snakes? Meet the real St Pat

By Mary Kenny

St Patrick's Day is upon us, but amid the shamrocks and shenanigans here a few things you may not have known about our patron saint...

1. Patrick had been a teenage atheist. In his famous Confession, he actually says he was an atheist from childhood.

He got religion in Ireland, tending sheep as a slave, at Slemish, Co Antrim.

2. There were some Christians in Ireland before Patrick got here in 432, evangelised by Palladius.

We could be celebrating St Palladius' day on July 7.

3. But most of the Irish were pagans who worshipped a number of different gods.

Dagda, Aengus and Ogma were popular but the favourite seems to have been Lug, after whom Lughnasa - August - is named. Brian Friel's play Dancing at Lughnasa has a sub-text of celebrating old Lug at harvest time.

4. Patrick was born in Bannaventa Berniae, which is supposed to be somewhere on the west coast of Britain, between the Clyde and the Severn.

Some scholars have recently suggested that actually, he was born in Brittany in France, not in Britain.

5. And there is an established French connection, since he trained for the priesthood at Auxerre, in the heart of Burgundy. Patrick was two years in this exquisite centre gastronomique before returning to the cold and windy shores of Hibernia.

6. His mother was called Concessa. Patrick was originally called Sochet, as a child. Ultan, Bishop of Connor, also referred to Patrick as "Holy Magonus".

7. He never claimed to have banished the snakes from Ireland.

Neither was he historically associated with the colour green.

8. However, he did quickly see that the Celts were nature-worshippers, and nature is always associated with green.

Yet even in the 1900s, country Irish folk considered green an "unlucky" colour. Parnell wouldn't have green near him for reasons of legendary superstition.

9. Patrick was very attached to the Holy Trinity, which he mentions frequently in his writings, and the shamrock, surely one of the world's most successful "brands", is a fine visual metaphor of the doctrine of the Trinity, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

10. Irish women were early devotees of Patrick's evangelisation.

Wealthy ladies laid their jewels on his altar, but he returned these gifts as he didn't want to be accused of being corrupt.

11. Patrick also said that "a Christian must pay his debts" (according to the Harvard scholar Philip Freeman in The World of Saint Patrick).

So maybe he would have supported fiscal austerity.

12. Did St Patrick speak in Irish? Latin was the common language of Christianity in his time, but as a successful evangelist he must have mastered the lingo of the people.

13. In his first episcopal synod, he condemned the Celts' "belief in vampires". Maybe Bram Stoker picked up that Dracula story from some ancient Celtic collective unconscious.

14. Patrick brought the Irish to Christianity peacefully. But it was a close-run thing when he came up against the High King Loiguire, (or Laoghaire) at Tara who threatened to have Patrick slain.

St Pat must have had some powers of persuasion because he won the confrontation, silenced the druid priests, and found some sympathetic support from the High Queen.

15. Patrick's episcopal see at Armagh was established in 444, the year before his death - helped by St Secundinus (Sechnall), who was slightly written out of the story.

It's a city of stunning cathedrals, beautiful town architecture, and lovely bakeries. Patrick is an ecumenical saint - always embraced by the Protestant tradition, as much as the Catholic one, in Ireland.

16. Patrick's Day has been marked for centuries but only became a national holiday in 1903, thanks to British legislation about bank holidays - although its growth in popularity was greatly helped by the Irish diaspora, especially in America.

17. In each era Paddy's Day reflects the spirit of the age.

In recent years, the emphasis has been on "inclusiveness" in the various parades, and the politicians now see it as an opportunity to obtain business for Ireland. March 17th's ability to change and adapt is probably part of the unique success of St Patrick's Day.

Belfast Telegraph


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