St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most beloved American holidays—a day many celebrate by wearing as much green as possible, consuming green-dyed beverages and parading through the streets pretending to be Irish. But, more importantly, it’s also an important holy day in Ireland and has been for centuries. For hundreds of years, the feast day of St. Patrick was considered a time of celebration in the country, and when more and more Irish immigrated to the U.S., they used St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate their Irish heritage.
But St. Patrick is also an significant figure in church history, who Ireland owes much of its Christian heritage to.
Here are five things about St. Patrick’s life you may not know:
He wasn’t Irish. He was Scottish.
Born in 373 to Roman British parents in Scotland, Patrick was raised in a relatively wealthy Christian home. His father was either a politician or a high-ranking soldier, and his mother had clergy in her family line.
Around the time he was 16 years old, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish marauders and taken to Ireland—and that’s where the trajectory of his life would be changed forever.
He was made a slave in Ireland.
Once St. Patrick was brought to Ireland, he was sold to a chieftain as a slave. He spent his days watching sheep, and for six years, he dreamed of going back home. However, it was this time in slavery that was essential to helping him reach the people of Ireland with the Gospel. During his captivity, he picked up the Druid language and learned many of the Druid customs.
One day, he fled from his captivity and made his way back home to Britain. He was finally in the warm embrace of his family and friends again—but not for long.
Patrick decided to devote himself to God, and soon became a priest. When the Church made a push to evangelize the Irish people, the bishop appointed Patrick to go. He knew he had to go back to the place he was enslaved in order to set the souls of men free and spread the good news of Christ. Patrick’s dreams were filled with visions of the Irish people crying out to him to come back.
He wasn’t the first Christian to evangelize Ireland.
Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, but he wasn’t the first missionary sent to the country. In earlier decades, the Roman church sent a missionary named Palladius to set up churches in Ireland, but he hadn’t had much success.
Ireland was still largely under the pagan Druidic culture, so the churches were constantly under attack from the Druidic priests. Certain chieftains chased Palladius away from his mission.
When St. Patrick stepped foot in Ireland, he did not make the same mistake as Palladius. Instead, he tried to find a different route to win the people over. He set up another church in a quieter area and started to evangelize. He even went to see his old slave master and paid the ransom amount that a rescuer would have had to spend for him.
It was because of Patrick’s knowledge of the cultural customs, his mastery of the language and his boldness that the Gospel soon spread throughout Ireland and he was able to establish churches all over the island.
He didn’t chase any snakes out of Ireland.
There aren’t any snakes in Ireland, but legend has it that St. Patrick chased them all out. That is more than likely a myth, but it carries a spiritual metaphor. Over the years, Patrick faced off against many powerful Druid leaders, but he won people over with his soft-spoken demeanor and love. He was also said to have healed many people and worked miracles in the name of God.
In a sense, Patrick chased the pagan forces out of Ireland by rapidly spreading the Gospel to the people. He converted many of the Druids, and he won favor with the kings in the area. People repented of their sins of slavery and idolatry and came to know the love of Christ. He preached Christ, baptized and converted people to Christianity until the day he died. Patrick finally passed on March 17, 461 in Saul, Ireland.
He used shamrocks to teach people about the trinity.
The shamrock has become a huge symbol in Ireland in large part because the plant is everywhere, but also because of its connection to St. Patrick. Patrick is reported to have used the shamrock as a way to explain the mystery of the Trinity to the Irish people. It was something the Druid people very easily picked up because three was considered a sacred number in the Druidic religion.
So, as you go about with your St. Patrick’s Day celebration, think about the man who almost single-handedly spread the Gospel to an entire nation. St. Patrick is a model for us of humility, boldness in the face of adversity, forgiveness and bringing the Gospel to the world.
Freelance writer, blogger, full-time husband and father of three. Zach is also co-founder of Theologues.com, a website for Christians to grow in learning about their faith. You can find him on Twitter or his blog.