Don't say it too loudly -- especially not around my red-headed wife's family, all those Rays and Murphys and O'Connells and McFaddens and Donahues.
Shhh. The patron saint, nay, the symbol of Ireland . . . was a Romanized Brit.
This hardly matters to the revelers who consume thousands of gallons of beer (green-dyed and otherwise) in St. Patrick's Day celebrations -- any more than the fact that George Washington was a Brit has ever bothered any of the people who celebrate the 4th of July, or the fact that Cleopatra was a Greek has ever bothered a Hollywood casting director. Still, in the politically-charged days since the Elizabethan colonization of Ireland in 1556, it's better to whisper Patrick's ethnic origins if one is to mention them at all.
Patrick's father was a middle-class deacon and bureaucrat, which meant that Patrick could have expected to enjoy a decent education and livelihood; but at 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates who attacked his father's farm in England, and he became enslaved for 6 years. During the near-starvation and other privations of his captivity, Patrick sustained himself with his faith in God, away from clerics or formal instruction.
At the end of 6 years, a mysterious voice told him that he was going home, whereupon he was either freed or he escaped from his captivity, walked 200 miles to the Irish coast, and hitched a boat back to England. There, after reuniting with his family, Patrick was visited by another divine messenger who revealed what was to become Patrick's calling: to bring Christianity back to the land of his captors, to become a civilizing voice among the Irish or vox hiberionacum.
He received rudimentary training for the priesthood (lacking a complete classical education, something which he would always regret) and returned to Ireland around 435, working principally from Armagh in the North. Although legends credit him with single-handedly converting the whole of Ireland (using the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Trinity), in actuality his mission concerned itself with organizing his small flock into a church administration, and turning them upon the rural Irish to stamp out idolatry and sun-worship.
His two rough Latin works (a Confession, and an Epistle, in which he denounced the treatment of Irish captives by a Briton chieftain) are the earliest surviving Irish texts, revealing a humble man who was conscious of his status as an intellectual exile as well as a physical one. By a few hundred years after his death, he was credited with a number of tall miracles, including driving all of the snakes off of the island, and certainly the metaphoric significance of that tale has fueled much of the Irish nationalistic spirit with which he later became identified.
It doesn't explain the green beer, however.
Categories: Christian-History, Ireland