St Patrick

Unlike many other early Saints, quite a lot is known about St Patrick, mainly due to the existence of his 'autobiography' (the Confessio).

Patrick was born sometime between 387 - 390 AD (the exact date isn't certain) to a wealthy, high ranking Romano-British family. His father, Calpurnius, was a deacon whilst his mother, Conchessa, was closely related to St Martin of Tours.

It's uncertain exactly where he was born, but it is believed to have been in western England or southern Scotland - possibly the village of Bannavem Taberniae or Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton.

He was initially given the birth name of Maewyn Succat and only later given the baptismal name of Patricius (or Patrick) by Pope Celestine, prior to his mission to Ireland.

Patrick was not overly religious as a child but this changed when, at the age of 16 (c 405), he was kidnapped by Irish raiders under the command of High King Niall. He was taken to Antrim and sold to Meliuc, a local landowner and druidic high priest, as a slave. For the next six years he worked as a shepherd, tending his flock on the slopes of Slemish, near the modern town of Ballymena.

During his time in Ireland he learnt the language and the customs of his captors along with the pagan rituals they followed - skills which he used to good effect in later years. He spent much of this time in constant prayer and, after six years captivity, had a dream in which he was told that his ship was ready. He escaped and travelled 200 miles south to the sea where he boarded a ship leaving for Gaul. He was finally reunited with his family in Britain.

However, by this time he had decided that he wanted to return to Ireland as a missionary and began to study as a priest. Between 412 - 415 he studied at the monastery on the island sanctuary of Lerins, off the Cote d'Azur. This was followed by further years of study at the monastery of Auxerre, under the guidance of St Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre who ordained him in 417. Patrick then spent a further 15 years as a disciple of Germanus.

During this time he still harboured a burning desire to return to Ireland and, in 431 on the death of Palladius, first Bishop of Ireland, this wish was granted when Patrick was chosen to take his place. However, Patrick was called to Rome first where, in 432, Pope Celestine consecrated him as Bishop - and where he was given the baptismal name of 'Patricius'.

Patrick travelled to Ireland, together with 25 followers, arriving at Slane in the winter of 432/433. He made his base at Armagh, in the north of the country, and was given the protection of Dichiu, a local king, who became one of the first converts to Christianity and gifted a large barn (Sabhall - pronounced Saul) which was the first church established by Patrick.

Over the next few years Patrick made extensive and successful missionary journeys throughout Ireland, spending his time preaching, teaching, building churches, opening schools and monasteries and converting chiefs and bards the length and the breadth of the country.

He continued this work until his death, on 17 March 461 at Saul, County Down. During his life he consecrated no fewer than 350 bishops and established the Catholic faith within Ireland.

It is believed that he was buried about two miles from Saul, wrapped in a shroud which had been woven by St Brigid - in later years, the cathedral of Down was built on this site. The National Museum in Dublin has the little hand bell he used to summon his congregation as well as a tooth which is believed to have been his. In addition, Glastonbury also has some relics which are claimed to be St Patrick's.

After his death, Patrick became a legendary figure and was credited with many miracles, the most famous of which is that he chased snakes from Ireland. However, it is believed that this referred to him eliminating paganism as snakes are a pagan symbol. He is also famous for describing the concept of the Trinity by using a shamrock leaf.

Patrick is remembered as a Bishop and missionary and is best known as the patron saint of Ireland, whose feast day is 17 March. However, he is also recognised as the patron of Nigeria, engineers and excluded people.

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