Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.
As a young man, this missionary had been captured by Irish raiders and made a slave for several years. Escaping back to his native Wales, Patrick took his vows and became a priest. Over the next 20 years, he studied scripture and learned administration and construction. Always in his heart he desired to return to pagan Ireland to bring its people to Christianity. His wish was granted when he was some 40 years old.
Driven out of Wicklow, he sailed north, putting in to Strangford Lough and landing in the shadows of the Mountain of Mourne where he climbed to a barn and celebrated Mass. Dichu, a local chieftain to whom the barn belonged, became Patrick’s first convert and deeded him the land and barn, where he built his first church. With the end of winter, Patrick set out for Tara to win the patronage of the high king.
This was the eve of King Leoghaire’s birthday, and his royal decree was that no fires be lit until his druids kindled a blaze atop the Hill of Tara. From the darkness across the Boyne River, all suddenly saw a blaze spring up. The King demanded of his druids who had done such a thing. They are said to have replied, “Unless that fire is extinguished this night, it will burn forever. It will outblaze all fires that we light, and he who lit it will conquer us all and rule over this island henceforth.” The king sent soldiers to put out the fire and capture the one responsible for lighting it. Though they took Patrick prisoner and led him back to Tara, legend states that they were unable to quench Patrick’s Paschal fire, lit in honor of Easter. As he and his followers were taken to Tara, Patrick composed the Lorica as a shield against harm and a comfort for them.
Patrick argued his cause so convincingly that the high king allowed him to preach and convert. From that time until his death, Patrick and his entourage, who were able to build a church from whatever materials lay at hand, crisscrossed the island making converts, consecrating priests, and building churches. The saint is said to have spent 40 days atop Croagh Patrick, a conical mountain that rises above Clew Bay, in fasting and prayer. He took counsel with an angel there. To this day, Croagh Patrick is a place of special pilgrimage, and once a year there is a procession to its top. Many of those who climb it do so barefoot as a sign of submission and commitment.
Stories abound about Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. Since those reptiles never made it across the land bridge before Ireland became an island, it has often been surmised that the literal meaning is that he defeated and drove out the druids. This seems unlikely as almost 100 years after his death, St. Columba was known to tell his listeners, “Christ is my druid.” It is far more likely that Patrick, like many other missionaries throughout the centuries, reconciled Christian belief and practices with those of the pagan druids, in effect, taking over where they left off.
Near the end of his life, Patrick constructed a great stone cathedral at Armagh, only two miles from the fortress of Emain Macha. A school and monastery were added, and it eventually became a great university. Though he wished to die in Armagh, he heard God’s voice tell him to return to Strangford Lough where he had built his first church. He died there on March 17th, CE 493. He was buried in a spot that adjoins the churchyard of Downpatrick Cathedral; his grave is marked by a stone boulder upon which is carved a cross and the simple: “Patric.”