St. Patrick

Who Was St. Patrick?


St. Patrick's Day comes on March 17. So who was Saint Patrick and what did he do? Here's an explanation written especially for the readers of The Progress Report.

St. Patrick and His Methods

by Tim Plamondon

There's a tremendous amount of debate over the existence and non existence of St. Patrick; what I find most offensive about this debate is that people force their will upon others when attempting to prove their respected side. Well, I am detached from my will, and today 1500 years since his death (Hanson, 1983) would like to give his non existence the benefit of doubt and discuss how he converted the "pagan" Irish to Catholicism in the fifth century.

From reading one of his few known writings, the Confession as well as other scholarly books about St. Patrick, it seems his conversion of the pagan Irish was facilitated by his lineage, his prior history with the pagan Irish, fifth century Ireland's decentralized political/social structure, and a strategy of resistance without hope.

St. Patrick's lineage and prior history with the pagan Irish may have prepared him for the mission the Catholic church of Britain assigned him. He was born around 390 AD to a wealthy landowning deacon in Britain, and his father's father was a presbyter. When he was sixteen, Irish pirates invaded his father's estate and kidnapped him, enslaving him as a sheep herder. It seems that St. Patrick was able to learn the language during this captivity; he also became an unusually devout worshiper of God during his enslavement.

After six years of captivity St. Patrick escaped to Britain; he soon entered missionary training and became a presbyter, then later a bishop; around 431 AD the Catholic church of Britain chose St. Patrick to travel to Ireland and convert the pagan Irish. (Hansen, 1983)

Due to St. Patrick's lineage and prior experience with the Irish, he was able to easily penetrate the political/social system, which he worked within, spiritually changing the subjects of each village. This sentiment is stated later in the Confession, "You know, and so does God, how I have lived among you from my youth in the true faith and in sincerity of heart. Likewise, as regards the heathen among whom I live, I have been faithful to them, and so I shall be. God knows it, I have overreached none of them, nor would I think of doing so, for the sake of God and His Church, for fear of raising persecution against them and all of us, and for fear that through me the name of the Lord be blasphemed; for it is written: Woe to the man through whom the name of the Lord is blasphemed." (Confession 48)

St. Patrick penetrated a decentralized political/social structure that was divided into five major areas that were subdivided into smaller states or tuatha. Each smaller state was ruled by a chieftain or king, who yielded authority to the king of one of the five larger areas, who in turn was subject to the authority of the High King. Each chieftain and king acted independently and looked out for his own best interests. (Gallico, 1958)

More importantly, St. Patrick was able to approach individual chieftains and persuade them to allow him to preach in their tuatha. Of course their were fees St. Patrick had to pay, in order to preach the word of God; he was more than willing to pay whatever price each chieftain demanded, letting him get the word of God to the subjects of the village and/or state: "When I baptized so many thousands of people, did I perhaps expect from any of them as much as half a screpall? Tell me, and I will restore it to you. Or when the Lord ordain clerics everywhere through my unworthy person and I conferred the ministry upon them free, if I asked of any of them as much as the price of my shoes, speak against me and I will return it to you. On the contrary, I spent money for you that they might receive me; and I went to you and everywhere for your sake in many dangers, even to the farthest districts, beyond which there lived nobody and where nobody had ever come to baptize, or to ordain clergy, or to confirm the people. With the grace of the Lord, I did everything lovingly and gladly for your salvation" (Confession 50-51); with each tuatha conquered, political power and protection from certain dangers was gained, and St. Patrick was a step closer towards converting the whole state.(Gallico, 1958)

St. Patrick's strategy for change was resistance without hope for the present, but hope for the future, and this was the wisdom of St. Patrick; he knew the easier road to change was converting the creators of the future, womenfolk of the village, and in turn have the created future, the children, travel with him; this wisdom is stated in the confession "Among others, a blessed Irishwoman of noble birth, beautiful, full-grown, whom I had baptized, came to us after some days for a particular reason: she told us that she had received a message from a messenger of God, and he admonished her to be a virgin of Christ and draw near to God. Thanks be to God, on the sixth day after this she most laudably and eagerly chose what all virgins of Christ do. Not that their fathers agree with them; no -- they often even suffer persecution and undeserved reproaches from their parents; and yet their number is ever increasing. How many have been reborn there so as to be of our kind, I do not know, not to mention widows and those who practice continence. But the greatest is the suffering of those women who live in slavery. All the time they have to endure terror and threats. But the Lord gave His grace to many of His maidens; for, though forbidden (by others) to do so, they follow Him bravely." "All the time I used to give presents to the kings, besides the fees I paid to their sons who travel with me." (Confession 42,53)

Finally, St. Patrick was a steadfast man of change who knew either consciously or subconsciously that working within an existing system causes outward change; he also brought about change through starting locally and not ignoring the existing leaders. St. Patrick is an example of an agent of change concentrating on the future in progress, which will cause a perpetual wheel of change.

Tim Plamondon is a writer living in Chicago.


Hanson, R.P.C. The Life and Writings of the Historical St Patrick. New York: The Seabury Press, 1983

Gallico, Paul. The Steadfast Man. New York: Doublday & Co., 1958

St Patrick, Archbishop and Apostle of the Scots. The Confession. About 492 AD

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