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Saint Patrick

A Legend Of Saint Patrick By Briton Riviere.jpg

 "A Legend of Saint Patrick" by Briton Rivière.


By  Peter Bertolero

Edited by Beth Maxwell Boyle


Patrick was born in England or Wales (depending on which one of these nationalities you claim to be). Let’s lean toward England since that is what most authorities favor. For those who just want the facts, we can be absolutely certain that he was of a Celtic background, regardless of the exact border the location on the great island he was born in. More than likely his birthplace was in a small village along the western coast of what was then, Roman Britannia, near the mouth of the Severn River in what is now Wales. His birthday was 385 A.D. He was given the name Magonus Succatus Patricius, the shortened form of which was Maewyn. His father, Calpurnius, was a Roman official which meant that Maewyn lived in relative comfort in his father’s villa up until his sixteenth birthday.

Like the similar stories of Saint Nicolas of Myra, and Saint Valentine of Rome, Maewyn lived during a time when it was hard to be a Christian. Christianity was a persecuted religion, and missionary endeavors were fraught with danger and death. However, by his own admission, his life up to the age of 16 was filled with immoral living and he had learned to be very materialistic.


Maelwyn’s living of the “good life” ended rather abruptly, however, the year he turned sixteen. A raiding party from Ireland attacked his small village taking Maelwyn and hundreds of others captive, selling them as slaves back in Ireland. For six years, Maelwyn served as a shepherd on the desolate mountains of Northern Ireland, as the slave of a local king who ruled in County Antrim. The young lad of privilege soon found that his pampered life wasn’t worth much more than the livestock he tended. It was during this time of slavery (which was filled with long periods of solitude in the wilderness) that Maelwyn seemed to undergo a genuine conversion to faith in Christ. In one of two published works by Saint Patrick, entitled Confession (the other was Epistola), he renounced his heathen ways. He began his journal by writing “I, Patrick, a sinner, the most rustic and the least of all the faithful…” The drastic change in his life, from living as the spoiled brat of an important official to being reduced to slave status, laboring at the lowliest of tasks, brought about the necessary humility and crises that drove Maelwyn to faith in Christ. He later wrote, “I was chastened exceedingly and humbled every day in hunger and nakedness.”

Remarkably, the harsh conditions that Maelwyn was subject to work a grace in him that his prior life of comfort and privilege had not. In the finer conditions provided by his father’s wealth, Maelwyn’s relationship to Jesus Christ was indifferent. But while a kidnapped and enslaved laborer, he actually began to enjoy the long periods of isolation wherein he walked among his flocks and herds seemingly in endless prayer and fellowship with God. However, he never stopped hoping and praying for an opportunity to escape his enslavement, and when the opportunity arose, he took it.


His exodus from Ireland involved a risky journey of 200 miles to the sea, where he found a boat that would take him to Britain. The young man his family received back again was not the same one who had disappeared from the face of the earth 6 years before. The experience had indeed changed him profoundly. He was indeed scarred from the ordeal, but he was also inflamed with the zeal of a living faith that was forged in the fires of a great trial. His perspective on the whole experience was one in which he saw the providence of God at work, both in the kidnapping and slavery, as well as in his escape. As the years went by, the divine purpose of Maelwyn’s adventures became more in focus.


For 12 years Patrick studied for the priesthood at a monastery run by St. Germain, Bishop of Auxerre in Gaul. It was at the monastery that he took the name, Patrick. During this time he had a series of dreams in which voices from the inhabitants of Ireland called out to him – “We beseech thee to come and walk once more among us.” In one of these dreams, a letter carrier by the name of Victorious delivered a message to him. The letterhead read read “THE VOICE OF THE IRISH.” In his dream, as he read the letter he heard the sound of many voices beseeching him to “Once more walk among us.” Deeply moved, Patrick testified that he “…could read no more.” From these dreams, Patrick received a burden for Ireland and felt compelled to return there as a missionary to the Irish. At first, his superiors balked at the idea, believing him too ignorant and rustic, as well as unskilled as a theologian and communicator for such a mission. They felt someone of more tact and education. So their first choice was Palladius, who then became the first missionary bishop to Ireland.

But Patrick’s burden only increased and he would not let the matter rest, until 2 years later, when Palladius was sent to the Scots, Maelwyn/Patrick got his wish and was sent as the second Christian Bishop to Ireland. He was said to strike an imposing posture, being extremely handsome, with a charming if not in some ways coarse manner, and an immensely affable and congenial personality. God used Patrick to win many Irish to the Christian faith. Because the Irish already had a Pagan belief system which was Celtic in culture and officiated by Druids, his ministry was always in the midst of conflict. His life was constantly threatened, with unknown assassins lying in wait to take his life by poison, fire, drowning, or some other lethal means, and time and again he miraculously escaped these attempts on his life. He eventually traveled throughout the whole of Ireland, founding monasteries, schools, and churches that would, over time, transform Ireland from a Pagan country into what became known as “the isle of Christian saints.”

Although much of Patrick’s ministry in Ireland has reached legendary proportions, the scope of his amazing achievements is based on the historical record. Within ten years of his mission, he founded what became known as “primatial see of Armagh” as well as a growing network of Christian churches and monasteries throughout Ireland which were all overseen by native Irish clergy who were educated and trained by the schools and monasteries founded by Patrick. Patrick’s Christianization of Ireland allowed Western learning to survive through the dark ages. Ireland thrived while the rest of Europe seemed to crumble. Patrick’s monasteries copied and preserved sacred texts, which were used to educate and train more missionaries, who later returned to Europe and established monasteries in England, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

Patrick personally baptized tens of thousands of people and ordained hundreds of priests. He was mainly responsible for the evangelization and Christianization of the Picts and the Anglo-Saxons. He never ceased giving thanks to God for using him, an unskilled and uncouth instrument, to win multitudes of idol worshippers to the extent that they became “the people of God.” Patrick’s mission to and then ministry in Ireland eventually ended slavery, human sacrifice, illiteracy, paganism, and inter-tribal warfare. He established some three hundred and sixty-five churches and many schools, colleges and baptized some 120,000 people! According to legend in one of his most famous illustrations he used a shamrock, or trefoil clover as an illustrated sermon of the triune God.

Patrick was said to be an astounding teacher and people marveled at his stories. He was probably most well-known for his praying and fasting for long periods of time in the wilderness and mountains of Ireland (each Lent, for instance, he followed the examples of Moses and Jesus by praying and fasting in the solitude of the wilderness for 40 days), and ridding the country of its venomous snakes, causing even the soil of the country to be so obnoxious to them that they would instantaneously die upon touching it. While there is some controversy over whether or not he did actually rid Ireland of snakes, it is thought by some that it is a metaphor for what he did do, which was driven out paganism (symbolized by the snake from the land) and demonic powers and territorial spirits which were said to be at one time both plenteous, and frequently, visible!. He is also attributed with raising the dead on many different occasions, even his own father on one of them.

It was Patrick who began a movement that was at first called “the Green Martyrdom” and later became known as the “White Martyrdom”. On many occasions, priests trained by Patrick and who took the vow of green martyrdom, would simply get into a small boat, shove off from shore, praying and trusting God to take the boat wherever He wanted them to preach; and whenever they arrived at their destination, there they would begin their mission to bring the natives to a saving knowledge of Jesus. Some would do this by walking in a given, random direction until they came to a village, and then would begin their mission in this manner.


The Banishing of the Snakes

A Cistercian monk by the name of Jocelyn, in twelfth-century writing refers to Ireland having three major ills, or a “triple plague”. These three were: “a great abundance of venomous reptiles; myriads of demons visibly appearing; and a multitude of magicians.” It is said that during a time of prayer on Croagh Patrick he took his staff, a symbol of his authority, and commanded all the reptiles to be gone, hurling them down into the same hollow where he had cast the demons that had attacked him during his Lenten prayer and fasting.

The absence of snakes in Ireland gave rise to the legend that they had all been banished by St. Patrick into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill. Some explain this by alluding to the fact that this hagiographic theme draws on the mythography of the staff of the prophet Moses. In Exodus 7:8–7:13, Moses and Aaron use their staffs in their struggle with Pharaoh's sorcerers, the staffs of each side morphing into snakes. Aaron's snake-staff prevails by consuming the other snakes.

Curiously, across Ireland, there are hundreds of crosses, many of which can be proven to have pre-Christian origins, and many are entwined with images of serpents. The same is true of other locations, such as Malta, Rhodes, India, Greece, and many more. In all these places snakes are found on ancient megalithic monuments and Christian buildings. But why Ireland if there were never any snakes there? In Irish tales, great serpents or "piests" (pests), were said to be “as big as a horse, and have a great mane upon it, and so it has” (Legend of the Lakes, Croker, relating to Lough Kittane of Killarney). Many of these serpent tales refer to actual locations in Ireland whereby ancient man created great centers of healing, initiation, and ritual – all linked to the worship of the serpent. Why if there were never any serpents in Ireland? Some have suggested that perhaps serpents were used by Patrick as a metaphor for Druids or demons or even members of the serpent cult and that the allusion to his driving of the snakes out of Ireland was actually pointing to his eradicating of Celtic paganism, magic, and superstition that was rampant before he came to Ireland, and had to be defeated before Christianity could spread throughout Green Erin.

On the eve of ancient Ireland’s most sacred feast, held in the Spring, St. Patrick was said to have faced one of his major challenges from his pagan opponents. It was a time when not a single flame was allowed to be burned anywhere so that all light was put out over the entire land in preparation for the feast. The high point of this feast came when the king would light the royal fire and proclaim the greatness of the royal family. Legend has it that it was a crime punishable by death for anyone to light his or her fire before the royal fire was lit. No one would dare defy this command. As the high king, Leoghaire sat with all his royal entourage anticipating the moment when the royal fire would come to life when suddenly all were struck with fear and amazement. To their consternation, a distant light appeared and began to grow gradually brighter on the Hill of Slane, approximately 12 miles away. All wondered who would dare do such a thing as to light a fire against the king’s edict and bring upon themselves the sentence of death.

The king consulted his wisest men, yet no one knew the identity of the culprit. However, the court's wizards made this declaration, “O great king, live forever. This fire, which has been lit on the Hill of Slane before your fire here on the Hill of Tara, will never be put out unless it is extinguished this very night. Even more, it will be greater than the power of our fire, and the one who lit it will overcome us all, even you, and will win over all the men of your land, and all the kingdoms will be subject to it, for it will fill al things and reign forever!”

It was this fire, legend has it, that St. Patrick lit in honor of the Christian festival honoring the resurrection of Christ, called in those days Pascha. The offended King Leoghaire, high king of Ireland, feeling threatened by this new faith that was sweeping through his land and challenging the power and traditions of his kingdom, decided he must put an end to the matter. Leoghaire left with his two senior wizards and 27 chariots to confront St. Patrick.

When they arrived to confront Patrick all showed their superiority over him by forcing him to walk toward them – all but one man named Erc, who believed in the message of St. Patrick. At that moment St. Patrick stretched out his hand and blessed him. It is said that Erc became a Christian at that moment.

One of the wizards laughed at Patrick’s Christian teachings and mocked his faith. This caused such anger to rise up in Patrick that he cried out for God to judge him and destroy the blasphemous wizards. It was then that an invisible force threw him high into the air and then hurled him back to the earth, crushing his head against a stone. This caused great fear among all the people.

The Legend Deer’s Cry

All were terrified by the events on the Hill of Slane. They became angry and more bent on killing St. Patrick. Patrick, sensing that they were going to try to harm him, declared, “May God arise and His enemies be scattered, and those who hate Him flee from His face.” As the words left his mouth, strange darkness fell over Leoghaire and his men. In their confusion, attacking Patrick, the men turned on each other. An earthquake rumbled beneath them and the chariots were destroyed. Only a few men escaped and they sought a place to hide in the nearby mountains, wanting nothing more to do with the powerful man of God, who was so much more powerful than their pagan wizards.

The king, motivated by fear for his life and the pleadings of his wife, knelt before Patrick and pretended to pay homage to his Christian God. But he was really looking for an opportunity to do harm to St. Patrick, especially after he had humiliated him. Leoghaire took Patrick off to the side from everyone else, pretending to seek counsel from him, but Saint Patrick sensed the king’s intentions and turned toward him and his companions numbering eight men and a young boy. He then blessed this small entourage in the name of Jesus Christ and at that moment the men became invisible to Leoghaire and all he saw was eight deer and a fawn trotting off into the countryside.

Feeling defeated and downtrodden, the king returned to Tara.

The Legend of St. Patrick’s Bell

It was a regular custom for St. Patrick to spend the 40 days and nights of Lent fasting and praying in an isolated place, following the example of Moses and his Lord, Jesus Christ. One particular year he did this on the peak of Croagh Patrick (mound of Patrick).

As his time of fasting and prayer was coming to an end, it is said that the sound of flapping wings was heard by Patrick, and looking around him, he noticed that the very air became darkened with what appeared to be inky black shapes which began to cover him as if to smother him by their density. These were demons who came to attack and kill him. Patrick tried to fight them off by reciting psalms and singing hymns loudly. He then made the sign of the cross and rang his prayer bell, hoping that they would be banished. Legend has it that the sound of his bell was heard all through Ireland. However, this technique was not successful so he threw his bell at them, causing them to scatter and disappear, plummeting down the mountain into a hollow called, "Log na Deamhan", or “Hollow of the Demons.” His bell, however, was cracked in the fall. St. Patrick placed heavy rocks over their grave and the weight of the rocks forced them deep into the ground, so deep in fact that water bubbled up and filled the hole. Angels appeared in place of the demons, singing sweet songs.

Patrick’s bell can be seen in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. According to legend, the bell was originally made of white metal. However, it turned black from the constant attack it received from…..demons!

St. Patrick and the Bull

One last legend deals with St. Patrick’s exorcisms of demons as well as his success in ridding Ireland of its population of serpents and chasing them into Log na Deamhan. He and his disciples were ravenously hungry and their appetites very sharp. They asked a tribal king by the name of Crom Dubh for the gift of a bullock to feed themselves, but instead, he offered them the prize of a ferocious bull. The animal was so savage that it would reputedly kill whoever approached it (something the king might have secretly had in mind).

However, at Patrick’s bidding, it became docile and voluntarily laid its head on the chopping block, offering itself for slaughter so that its meat might feed the saint and his followers. After giving thanks, they killed and skinned the beast, and, with great enjoyment, ate their fill until they were satisfied.

Crom Dubh later requested the return of the bull, so Patrick instructed his men to gather all the bones together in one place and to put the hide of the beast on top so that the bones were covered. St. Patrick prayed over them and the bull came to life again, more bellicose than ever!

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

There is a beautiful prayer that legend says was written by St. Patrick himself, though some doubt that he did. Yet even if he did not, the prayer itself is very Patrick-esque in its style and composition. As the story goes, he suspected an ambush while he was on the way to meet King Laoghaire. He said the prayer, known today as St. Patrick's Breastplate, the Lorica, or the Deer's Cry, and as the soldiers lay in wait Patrick and his companions passed by but all the soldiers saw were deer!

A loricae, by the way, were ancient prayers of protection that were confessed at those times when a person felt their lives were endangered by evil or evil intent and were used as one would use the name of Jesus and the truth of scripture to break the enemy’s power or stronghold. A usual lorica would call upon the creedal tenets of the true Christian faith, binding a person to them by faith, with the confidence that the truths contained within them would be superintended by the Holy Spirit so that grace would be provided to thwart what threatened the person’s well-being. St. Patrick’s lorica was also called his breastplate because that is what a lorica was. A lorica literally was a piece of ancient leather armor of protective body covering, meant to protect the chest (such as a breastplate). Saint Patrick’s Breast Plate was a daily prayer of intercession and blessing, with some of the ingredients of a creed and some of a psalm. 

I rise today in the powers strength 

Invoking the Trinity, believing in three-ness

Confessing the oneness of creations Creator

I rise today in the power of Christ’s birth and baptism

In the power of His crucifixion and burial

In the power of His rising and ascending

In the power of His descending and judging

I rise today in the power of the love of cherubim

In the obedience of angels and in the service of archangels

In hope of rising to receive the reward

In the prayers of the patriarchs, in the preaching of the apostles

In the faith of confessors, in the innocence of holy virgins

And in the deeds of the righteous

I rise today in heaven’s might, in suns brightness

In moon’s radiance, in fire’s glory, in lightning’s quickness

In wind’s swiftness, in sea’s depth, in earth’s stability,

In rock’s fixity

I rise today with the power of God to pilot me

God’s strength to sustain me, God’s wisdom to guide me

God’s eye to look ahead for me, God’s ear to hear me,

God’s hand to protect me, God’s way before me

God’s shield to defend me, God’s host to deliver me

From the snares of devils, from evil temptations,

From nature’s failings, from all who wish to harm me far or near,

alone and in a crowd.

Around me I gather today all these powers against

Every cruel and merciless force to attack my body and soul

May Christ protect me today from poison and burning,

drowning and wounding

So that I may have abundant reward

Christ be with, Christ before me, Christ behind me

Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me

Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me

Christ in my lying, Christ in my sitting, Christ in my rising

Christ on in the heart of all who think of me

Christ on the tongue of all who speak to me

Christ in the eye of all who see me

Christ in the ear of all who hear me

I rise today in the powers might, invoking the trinity

Believing in three-ness, confessing the oneness of creation’s Creator

For to the Lord belongs salvation,

Ad unto the Lord belongs salvation

And unto Christ belongs salvation

May Your salvation, Lord,

be with us always. Amen!

[Domini est salus.

Domini est salus.

Christi est salus.

Salus tua, Domine,

Sit semper vobiscum. Amen.]

The Death of Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick ministered in Ireland for many years. Some have said that he lived well past his hundredth birthday, dying in Soul in County Down, on March 17th, about the fifth century. When news hit that the beloved Archbishop Patrick had died, the whole entire country went into great mourning. There were so many who took part in his funeral procession, each carrying a lighted candle, that the night became as bright as the noonday.


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