True history and legend are mixed when it comes to St. Patrick. Historical sources report that he was born between A.D. 371 and A.D. 389 in possibly Kilpatrick near Dunbarton in Scotland. He was the son of Calpurnius and Conchessa. It is possible that they were Romans living in Britain to take charge of the Roman Colony there.
His real name is believed to be Maewyn Succat (Succat means Warlike). He took on Patrick, or Patricus (meaning Noble), when he became a priest. It is said that his parents raised him as a Christian, but he didn't take their teachings seriously. He preferred to follow the sinful ways of the other youths.
Patrick continued in this way of life until one day he was captured by a band of marauders from Ireland, who made him go as a slave back to their own country. They forced him to live in poverty, misery and hunger, working as a shepherd and a swineherd.
Patrick missed Britain and his family so much that he thought his heart would break. How could he have taken everything so much for granted? He began to pray, asking God to help him ... asking for forgiveness. And the Lord heard his prayer, filling him with the fire of a new faith he had never known before. He was completely transformed.
Patrick's captivity lasted six years during which time he learned the native language well and also got to know of pagan practices of the Druid priests.
One night, while Patrick was still in captivity, he received a message from God in a dream in which he was told to flee from his master and go to the coast, two hundred miles away. He continued his journey and reached a settlement and eventually became united with his family again when he was in his early twenties.
Patrick's peaceful freedom was disturbed by another dream. In his dream he saw the people of Ireland and heard them crying out to return to their country ... to walk among them once more ... this time, not as a captive, but as one sent by God.
Patrick's heart was willing but he was not ready. He sought advice and was told to prepare for the priesthood. He started his studies at Lerins, an island near Cannes, France.
From that time on, Patrick dedicated his life to God, eventually receiving Holy Orders while under the guidance of St. Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre. His life was now a continual quest for holiness and doing God's will.
Pope St. Celestine sent a certain Palladius to bring the Gospel to Ireland, but he died. Because of St. Germanus, the Pope told Patrick to get ready to embark for the mission to Ireland. He was then consecrated a bishop, and returned to Ireland to convert the pagans to Christianity.
Initially, he did not get a good welcome. As he tried to land at Wicklow, the people threw stones at him and he had to go further up the East Coast.
Patrick was not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, but he began his work in northern and western Ireland, where no one had ever preached before. He suffered many trials in his missionary work, but he carried on. His writings tell us that he and his companions were captured and chained twelve times and one time sentenced to death. But, by the power of God, he was able to overcome, and the message of Christianity spread.
He eventually gained the trust and friendship of several tribal leaders and was quite successful at winning converts. He encountered the Druids at Tara and abolished their pagan rights. He converted the warrior chiefs and princes, baptizing them and thousands of their subjects in the Holy Wells which still bear that name.
He traveled throughout Ireland, establishing monasteries across the country. He also set up schools and churches which would aid him in his conversion of the Irish country to Christianity. His mission in Ireland lasted for about forty years.
Much Irish folklore surrounds St. Patrick. He is best known the world over for having driven the snakes from Ireland. Different tales tell of his standing upon a hill, using a wooden staff to drive the serpents into the sea, banishing them forever from the shores of Ireland.
While it is true there are no snakes in Ireland, chances are that there never have been since the time the island was separated from the rest of the continent at the end of the ice age. As in many old pagan religions, serpent symbols were common and possibly even worshipped. Driving the snakes from Ireland was probably symbolic of putting an end to that pagan practice.
Another Irish tale tells how Patrick used a three-leaf shamrock to illustrate the idea of the Trinity. He used it in his sermons to represent how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit could all exist as separate elements of the same entity. Many people believe the shamrock came to be the traditional symbol of Ireland as a result of this legend.
According to tradition, St. Patrick died sometime between March 17, A.D. 461 and A.D. 493 and was buried in the same grave as St. Bridget and St. Columba, at Downpatrick, County Down. The jawbone of St. Patrick was preserved in a silver shrine and was often requested in times of childbirth, epileptic fits and as a preservative against the evil eye.
Another legend says St. Patrick ended his days at Glastonbury and was buried there. The Chapel of St. Patrick still exists as part of Galstonbury Abbey. There is evidence of an Irish pilgrimage to his tomb during the reign of the Saxon King Ine in A.D. 688, when a group of pilgrims, headed by St. Indractus, were murdered.
The great anxiety displayed in the middle ages to possess the bodies, or at least the relics of saints, accounts for the many discrepant traditions as to the burial places of St. Patrick and others.
Now a saint, Patrick stands as a symbol of the Irish ... of the special love of God that is theirs ... of the unique destiny they claim ... of the beloved place they will always have in God's heart.