Saint Patrick & Co.
Saint Patrick / Naomh Pádraigh, known as the Apostle of Ireland, is the most generally recognized patron saint of Ireland, although Saint Brigid of Kildare and Saint Colmcille / Columba are also formally regarded as patrons of the island.
Saint Patrick / Pádraig / Patricius ( c. 387 – 458 /492 AD) is generally believed to have been born near the end of the C4th AD in a Villa called Enon at a place called Banna Venta Berniae / Bannavis Taberniae in the municipality of Nentria, sometimes thought to have been a settlement in Roman Gaul (possibly Brittany) or southern Scotland, but more commonly identified as Glannoventa, modern Ravenglass in Cumbria. He was originally named Maewyn Succat / Magonus Sucatus.
His family, evidently Romanised Britons, were Christian: his grandfather, Potitus, was a priest, and his father, Calpornius, was a deacon (although it has been suggested that he probably took on the role because of tax incentives rather than because he was particularly religious).
Maewyn was captured at the age of 16 by a group of raiders attacking his family’s estate and transported to Ireland, where he was made a slave, working as a swineherd or shepherd (traditionally at Mount Slemish in County Antrim, but more probably Fochill near Killala in County Mayo). Lonely and afraid, he turned to his family’s religion for solace, becoming a devout Christian.
After more than six years as a prisoner, Maewyn escaped. According to his writing, he walked some 200 miles to the coast, where he found a ship and, after various adventures, returned home to his family.
He claimed that in a dream an angel called Victoricus told him to return to Ireland as a missionary, and so he undertook a course of training for the priesthood that lasted more than 15 years, studying in Tours, Lenns and Auxerre (under Saint Germanus). After his ordination, Pope Celestine made him a bishop, renamed him Patritius and entrusted him with a dual mission: to minister to Christians already living in Ireland and to begin to convert the Irish from their nature-based Druidic religion.
In 432 AD he returned to Ireland, where he preached Christianity for over 20 years, mainly in the north and west of the island. His main base was Armagh, later consecrated as the principal archdiocese of the country, but legends of his deeds abound from all over Ireland, and by his own account he was particularly active in Connacht.
The Hill of Slane, in modern County Meath, is where Saint Patrick is said to have lit a Paschal fire in 433 AD in open defiance of thr Ard Rí / High King, Laoire, at nearby Tara. The story goes that the fire could not be doused by anyone but Patrick, whose prestige was thus enhanced in preparation for his confrontation with the royal druids.
Familiar with the Irish Gaelic language and culture, Patrick chose to incorporate traditional ritual into his lessons of Christianity instead of attempting to eradicate native beliefs. For instance, he superimposed a sun, a powerful Druidic symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic Cross, so that veneration of the symbol would seem more natural to the Irish.
Shamrocks & Snakes
A shamrock is supposed to have been used by Saint Patrick to illustrate the Holy Trinity. This legend (dating to 1726, according to the OED) is the basis for the central symbolism of the plant in Ireland, particularly on St Patrick’s Day.
However, the shamrock had been seen as sacred in pre-Christian Ireland, where it was viewed as representing rebirth and eternal life. Three was a sacred number in the pagan religion and there were a number of “Triple Goddesses” in ancient Ireland, including Bríde / Brigid, Ériu, and The Morrigan.
Snakes, which pious legend credits Saint Patrick with banishing from Ireland, never in fact existed on the island.
One suggestion is that “snakes” referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids, as evidenced on coins minted in Gaul.
Lough Derg (Loch Dearg – “red lake”) in modern County Donegal is where Saint Patrick is said to have killed a large serpent, its blood turning the water red (hence the name). The isolated lake is typical of the sites favoured by the ancient Druids for their rites.
Croagh Patrick (Cruach Phádraig – “Patrick’s stack”), a dramatic mountain in modern County Mayo, is venerated as the summit where Patrick fasted for 40 days of Lent. It is likely that the mountain had special significance in pre-Christian times.
Saint Patrick’s own Writings
Two Latin letters generally believed to have been written by Saint Patrick survive, the Confessio / Declaration and the Epistola / Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. They survive originally in the Book of Armagh, a C9th compilation of texts concerning the See of Armagh;, and, in six other manuscripts dating from the C10th to C12th.
In the first he gives a short account of his life and his mission, and addresses charges made against him by his fellow Christians at a trial. What these charges were, he does not say explicitly, but it would seem that he was accused of some sort of financial impropriety, and perhaps of having obtained his bishopric in Ireland with personal gain in mind. He writes that he “baptised thousands of people”, returned the gifts which wealthy women gave him, did not accept payment for baptisms, nor for ordaining priests, and indeed paid for many gifts to kings and judges, and paid for the sons of chiefs to accompany him.
Saint Patrick’s Epistola / Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, written after a first remonstrance was received with ridicule and insult, is an open letter announcing that he has excommunicated Coroticus because he had taken converts into slavery while raiding in Ireland. The letter describes the followers of Coroticus as “fellow citizens of the devils” and “associates of the Scots and Apostate Picts”. Although widely taken to be King Ceretic of Alt Clut / Strathclyde, it has also been proposed that Coroticus was a British Roman living in Ireland. It has been suggested that the sending of this letter provoked the trial mentioned in the Confessio.
Saint Patrick’s position as a foreigner in Ireland could not have been easy. His refusal to accept gifts from kings placed him outside the normal ties of kinship, fosterage and affinity. Legally he was without protection, and he was on one occasion beaten, robbed of all he had, and put in chains awaiting execution.
Saul (from Sabhall Phádraig – “Patrick’s barn”) in modern County Down is believed to have been the site of Saint Patrick’s first church, a barn donated to him by a local chieftain called Dichu. It is also claimed that Patrick died at Saul or was brought there between his death and burial. Nearby, on the crest of Slieve Patrick, is a huge statue of Saint Patrick with bronze panels showing scenes from his life.
For a long time it was widely believed that Saint Patrick died in 420 AD. There is plentiful evidence for a medieval tradition that he died in 492 AD. According to the latest reconstruction of the old Annals, Patrick probably died in 460 AD.
Downpatrick (Dún Phádraig – “Patrick’s stronghold”) in modern County Down is the reputed burial place of Saint Patrick.
The Battle for the Body of Saint Patrick, fought shortly after his death by the O’Neills and the Ulaid, demonstrates the importance of his corpse as an object of veneration in early Christian Ireland.
Two works by late C7th hagiographers of Saint Patrick have survived. These are the writings of Saint Tírechán, and the Vita sancti Patricii by Muirchu moccu Machtheni. Both writers relied upon an earlier work, now lost, the Book of Ultán, probably by Saint Ultan of Ardbraccan, Tírechán’s foster-father.
The Patrick portrayed by Tírechán and Muirchu is a martial figure, who contests with druids, overthrows pagan idols, and curses kings and kingdoms. On occasion, their accounts contradict Patrick’s own writings: Tírechán states that Patrick accepted gifts from female converts although Patrick himself flatly denies this. However, the emphasis Tírechán and Muirchu placed on royal and noble women who became nuns is thought to be a genuine insight into Patrick’s conversion work. Tírechán’s account suggests that many early Patrician churches were combined with nunneries founded by Patrick’s aristocratic ladies. Saint Patrick also worked with the unfree and the poor, encouraging them to vows of monastic chastity.
Other brief references to Saint Patrick occur in the Annals, but recent investigation has shown that none of these could have been begun before 740 AD. They all agree on 432 as the date of Patrick’s arrival in Ireland, but disagree as to his death. Notes in the Annals of Ulster and Annals of Innisfallen are likely retrospective, pro-Patrick, pro-Armagh glosses.
The Vita tripartita Sancti Patricii / Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick was written partly in Irish and in parts in Latin between 895 and 901 AD. Designed as a sermon to be read during the feast of St. Patrick’s Day, which had been institutionalized by the C9th, it is the earliest example of a saint’s Life written in the Irish language. It features the Patrick legend almost in the form in which it appears to us today; it was very popular and continued the process of “recasting Patrick in the mould of an Irish epic hero”.
In the Tripartirte Life the story of Patrick has been further elaborated, and he has been linked with continental Christianity – his mother has been upgraded to a kinswoman of St. Martin of Tours. It is full of folklore and “pious imagination,” taking Patrick to Rome, to Auxerre to train under St. Germanus, and to Tours as a monk under Martin. It has been called an instance of “hagiographical embroidery and fictitious enhancement”. By this point the historical Patrick has been submerged in a tradition that began in the C7th, linking Patrick to the continent; the text itself offers nothing of value to the historian of the actual Patrick.
TF O’Rahilly caused enormous controversy in 1942 by proposing that there had been two “Patricks”, Palladius and Patrick, and that what we now know of Saint Patrick was in fact in part a conscious effort to blend the two into one hagiographic personality. This led to decades of contention, but now seems to be widely accepted.
Saint Patrick features in many stories in the Irish oral tradition and there are many customs connected with his feast day. These traditions have been given new layers of meaning over time while also becoming tied to Irish identity both in Ireland and abroad.
The symbolic resonance of the Saint Patrick figure is complex and multifaceted, stretching from that of Christianity’s arrival in Ireland to an identity that encompasses everything Irish. In some portrayals, the saint is symbolically synonymous with the Christian religion itself.
There is also evidence of a combination of indigenous religious traditions with that of Christianity, which places Saint Patrick in the wider framework of cultural hybridity. Later in time, the saint becomes associated specifically with Roman Catholic Ireland and synonymous with Irish national identity. Subsequently, St. Patrick is a patriotic symbol along with the colour green and the shamrock.
St Patrick’s Day
17th March, popularly known as St. Patrick’s Day, is believed to be his death date and is the date celebrated as his Feast Day, probably due to the influence of the Waterford-born Franciscan scholar Luke Wadding as a member of the commission for the reform of the Breviary in the early part of the C17th.
St. Patrick’s Day celebrations include many traditions that are known to be relatively recent historically, but have endured through time because of their association either with religious or national identity.
St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in the town of Lorca, in the current Spanish province and former kingdom of Murcia, in commemoration of a C14th battle won by Christians against the Moors, presumably due to the Saint’s intervention on his Feast Day. He is the patron of the local Collegiate church.
St. Patrick is also venerated in the Orthodox Church, especially among English-speaking Orthodox Christians living in the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and North America. There are Orthodox icons dedicated to him.
Saint Patrick’s Relatives
Saint Patrick‘s own writings give only the names of his father and grandfather, but later hagiographies supplied him with an entire family tree. To quote the masterful Lord Aurelius Joseph Michael Isamat Anax of Catalania, “charlatans prattle about his family as in a game of crippled jugglers who dance in the tight ropes of hallucinatory circuses in cybernetic and even academic opium dens“.
Back in the 1820s Fr John Lanigan suggested that the origin of the stories about Saint Patrick’s sisters may lie in a group of women who were part of his Irish mission and whose status as spiritual sisters was transformed into that of biological sisters by later writers.
Saint Lupita / Lupait, thought to have been aka Liamain / Liamania, is one of five sisters attributed to Saint Patrick by later writers. The Tripartite Life of St Patrick states, that two of his sisters—Lupita and Tigrida—were taken with him, and sold as slaves, in the northern parts of Ireland. Another Life records only the capture of his sister Lupita, with others, who were sold there, when the Apostle of Ireland was only seven years old.
Lupita is sometimes called a virgin and sometimes a widow of a man called Longobardus, because he belonged to the nation of the Lombards. In the Book on the Mothers of the Irish Saints, attributed to Saint Aengus the Culdee, it is stated that Lupait was the mother of seven sons, named respectively Sechnall, Nechtan, Dabonna, Mogornan, Darigoc, Ausille, and the Priest Saint Lugna / Lugnath, who is set down as the luamaire (“pilot”) of Saint Patrick. It is thought that while the Apostle was in the western part of Connaught, with a sister named Nitria and 15 disciples called Franks, he may have appointed one of them and Lugnat to a station near Inchaguile on Lough Mask.
Lupita lived for a time with her nephew, Saint Mel, Bishop of Ardagh. Although this was in accordance with a custom of the primitive church, it gave scandal to some; and Saint Patrick, saying: “Men should dwell apart from women, lest occasion of scandal arise for the weak, and lest our Lord’s name be injured through us, which God avert”, ordered that Mel should live at Ardagh, and Lupita at Druimheo, to the east of a mountain called Brileith, which separated both places.
Lupait founded a monastery for religious women on the eastern side of Armagh. It is said Saint Patrick employed his sister in embroidering vestments and in arranging linens for altar purposes. In this work she was assisted by other holy virgins.
It is said that Saint Lupita was buried at the eastern side of the city of Armagh. A curious account states that about the middle of the C17th, the body of Saint Lupita was found in an upright position between two crosses, one before and the other behind, and these remains were buried under the ruins of the old church of Temple Fartagh.
Her feast day, 27th September, was reportedly the occasion of an annual festival at Inish Lougher on Lough Erne.
Saint Lómman & Co.
Saint Lomman / Loman / Lommán mac Dalláin (fl. C5th—early C6th), the patron of Trim (Co. Meath), appears to have increased his status posthumously through inter-monastic intrigue. To settle a political dispute , it seems that Lommán was drawn into the dossier of Saint Patrick as someone biologically related and subordinate to him.
An C8th AD text in the Book of Armagh states that through his mother, Lommán was a kinsman of Saint Patrick as well as of a number of other local saints of the C5th AD, including Saints Munis and Mo Genóc (Mugenóc) of Cell Duma Glind (Kilglyn).
According to the foundation story, Lommán joined St Patrick on his voyage to Ireland, landing at the estuary of the River Boyne, and continued in his ship as far as Trim, where he founded his monastery.
A later gloss to the Martyrology of Tallaght identifies Lommán as porter ((h)ostiarius) to Saint Patrick.
The Tripartite Life of Patrick, written in the C10th, tells that Lommán was a nephew of Patrick, his mother being a sister of Patrick, and that his brothers were Munis, Broccaid of Imliuch Ech, Broccán and Mo Genóc (presumably all Britons). When at Patrick’s instructions, the saint rowed to Trim, he arrived at the fortress belonging to the local ruler Feidlimid son of Lóegaire mac Néill. He first converted Feidlimid’s son, who became Saint Foirtchernn / Fortchern, and subsequently Feidlimid himself, whose wife, named Scoth / Scotnoe, was daughter to a British king. Feidlimid welcomed the saint and granted him Trim, where Patrick founded a monastery and left it in Lommán’s charge. Foirtchernn became his fosterson and with him he visited his brother Broccaid towards the end of his life.
Lommán bequeathed the church to both Patrick and Foirtchernn. Foirtchernn, though initially reluctant, accepted and after the death of his fosterfather, held the abbey for only three days, transferring it to the pilgrim Cathlaid in his stead.
Saint Lómman’s feast-day was observed on 17th February and 11th October.