St. Patrick: The Slave Who Saved Ireland

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, and people across the world will celebrate the good old Irish way, by sharing a pint. But as you raise your glass, make a toast to the man who returned to the land where he was once a slave, and brought the light of the gospel to Ireland.

Born in Roman Britain, St. Patrick was raised Christian but was not an active believer. A group of Irish pirates captured him at the age of 16, and brought him to Ireland, where he was enslaved for six years, according to the Confession of St. Patrick. “I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our desserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation,” he wrote.

While a slave, Patrick grew in his faith, and strengthened his relationship with God through prayer. After six years, he heard a voice telling him he would go home, and that his ship was ready. He escaped and found the ship, which he said was 200 miles away. After adventures with the ship’s crew, Patrick at length returned home, and studied Christianity. But then Patrick had a vision, where he was presented a letter:

I read the beginning of the letter: “The Voice of the Irish”, and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: “We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.” And I was so stung intensely in my heart so that I could read no more.

Heeding the vision, he returned to Ireland, where he recalled baptizing “so many thousands of people,” and ordaining clergy. He faced persecution on this path: “They seized me with my companions, and that day most avidly desired to kill me. But my time had not yet come. They plundered everything they found on us anyway, and fettered me in irons.” Nevertheless, he was released and the money returned.

Legend speaks of St. Patrick teaching the Irish about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity — that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — using the shamrock, a three-leafed plant. While the tale might be genuine, it first appears in writing only in 1726. While the Irish pagans had many triple deities, there is debate over whether or not they used the shamrock as a symbol. Icons of St. Patrick show him with a cross in one hand and a shamrock in the other. The shamrock has become the central symbol of St. Patrick’s Day for this reason.

Christians and non-Christians alike celebrate the holiday on March 17, the traditional day of his death. It was marked as a holiday in the early 1600s and is observed as a holy feast day by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Lutheran Church.

That’s the story of how St. Patrick, a man captured by pirates and sold into slavery, became the most famous and celebrated symbol of Ireland. His legacy of preaching the gospel to a hostile people still inspires us today.