Although Saint Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, little is known of his early life. Born in Britain in the fourth century into a wealthy Romano-British family, Patrick was the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest in the Christian church.
When he was sixteen years old, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland as a slave. Legend has it that while a hostage, he was told by God in a dream to flee from captivity to the coast, where he would board a ship and return to Britain. Upon his successful escape, in an act of thanks to God, Patrick joined the Church in Auxerre in Gaul (France), where he studied to be a priest.
He was called back to Ireland in 432. Patrick was a bishop by this time, and set about his mission to Christianize the Irish.
Irish folklore says that Patrick used shamrocks as one of his teaching methods to explain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to the Irish people, hence the adoption of the shamrock as the Irish national emblem.
Patrick worked as a missionary in Ireland for thirty years before he died in 460 or 461. Although it can’t be conclusively proven, it is believed his death fell on 17th March, hence that date being chosen as Saint Patrick’s Day.
Along with being famed for bringing Christianity to a previously Pagan Ireland, Saint Patrick is most well known for driving the snakes out of the country. As Ireland was separated from the rest of the continent at the end of the Ice Age, it is unlikely that there were ever snakes in the country in the first place. However, it is believed that this driving of snakes from the shores story was symbolic; written as a comparison to his clearing of Paganism from the country.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.