Article: St Patrick, the Enlightener of Ireland

Newry Cathedral News

Newry Cathedral. Photo: Mark G. Byrne

St. Patrick was a fifth-century Romano-British Christian missionary and Bishop in Ireland.  He was known as the “Apostle of Ireland”, and is the primary Saint of Ireland; the other patron saints being Brigid of Kildare and Columba.  Patrick was never formally canonised, having lived prior to the current laws of the Catholic Church in these matters.  Nevertheless, he is venerated as a Saint in the Catholic Church and in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where he is regarded as equal-to-the-apostles and Enlightener of Ireland.  He is also regarded as a Saint within the framework of their respective doctrine by the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran Churches.

St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated annually on 17th March, the anniversary of his death in the fifth century.  The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. On St. Patrick’s Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend Church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon.  Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived and people would dance, drink and feast on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage.

St. Patrick, who lived during the fifth century, is the patron saint of Ireland and its national apostle.  He was born in Britain, kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16.  He later escaped, was ordained a priest, then a bishop and returned to Ireland, being credited with bringing Christianity to its people.

In the centuries following Patrick’s death (believed to be March 17th 461), the mythology surrounding his life became ever more ingrained in the Irish culture.  Perhaps the most well-known legend of St. Patrick is that he explained the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) using the three leaves of a native clover, the shamrock.

Since around the 9th or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing the feast day of St. Patrick on the 17th March.  The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held not in Ireland but in America.  Records show that a St. Patrick’s Day parade was held on March 17th 1601 in a Spanish colony which is now St. Augustine, Florida.  The parade, and a St. Patrick’s Day celebration a year earlier were organised by the Spanish colony’s Irish Vicar Ricardo Artur.

More than a century later, homesick Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched in New York City on 17th March 1772 to honour the Irish patron saint.  Enthusiasm for St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York City, Boston and other early American cities only grew from there.

When St. Patrick escaped from Ireland he went to Rome and studied for the priesthood.  He was ordained a priest and later became a Bishop.  In a dream he heard the Irish people imploring him to come back to Ireland to convert them.  His first reaction was “Why me?  I was there as a slave in Slemish, looking after sheep and pigs and eating what they ate”.  After some consideration and reflection his “Why me?” became “Why not me?”  Thus he came and brought Christianity to this island.

St. Patrick’s generosity and willingness to respond to Christ’s call speaks volumes to each of us.  When we are asked to do something and our response is “Why me?”, based on St. Patrick’s generosity can our initial response of “Why me?”, like that of St. Patrick become, “Why not me?”

Read the article in this week’s Newry Reporter