How did Saint Patrick become a global saint?

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1. Toast of the town

For more than 50 years the citizens of Chicago have been turning their river green with huge vats of vegetable dye every 17 March, to celebrate a fifth-Century Irish saint.

People around the world from Dublin to London, from New York to Melbourne, come together to wear the shamrock, sink pints of stout, and parade wearing green in his honour. Even people with no claim to Irishness want to get involved.

But if he came back to earth this year, Saint Patrick would probably struggle to recognise himself in how he's portrayed today. And, interestingly, his view of Ireland probably wasn't what we imagine it to have been.

2. The man and the myths

Over the years many stories have been told and retold about the life and works of Saint Patrick. Click on each icon to find out more.

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Many of these myths have crept into people's consciousness and been accepted as true simply because of their retelling, or because they back up a point about religious faith or about Irish identity that people wanted to promote. But in order to get to the real facts about Saint Patrick and to get an idea of the man himself, we need to get back to basics and see what history can tell us about his life.

3. Story of a kidnap

In the fifth Century, Ireland was the only country in Western Europe which had not been incorporated into the Roman Empire. It had its own system of law and custom, but compared to Roman Britain it was an isolated outpost on the edge of the world.

Patrick left two documents written in Latin which give just a few biographical details.

He was born in Britain as a Roman citizen and came from a family of Christian clergy. He was kidnapped from his home when he was 16 and taken to Ireland, where he lived as a slave for six years. He escaped from Ireland ‘with difficulty’ and made his way back to Britain.

Mission from God

Not long after his return to Britain, Patrick had a series of visions. He believed God was telling him to go back to Ireland to preach the Gospel, and he did – but this was not a cross he bore lightly. He was lonely and faced hostility from Irish people, whom he regarded as uncivilised.

Patrick believed that God’s kingdom would be restored once his message had been proclaimed to all nations. Ireland, at the very end of the earth, would be the last nation to hear this message: Patrick was living in the end times.

4. Apocalypse - not now!

But the world didn't end as Patrick had anticipated, and he died towards the end of the fifth Century. By the end of the seventh Century, stories of his life circulated in the Irish Church, but his memory would probably have faded out had it not been for the work of an Irish cleric named Muirchú.

Muirchú took it upon himself to write a biography of Saint Patrick, but it was a biography constructed to serve his own purposes. He wanted to unite the warring tribes of Ireland and the Irish Church under the leadership of the Church of Armagh, which also just happened to be the seat of the country’s most powerful clan, the O’Neills.

The invention of Saint Patrick

Muirchú realised he needed a saint or figure around which he could unite the Irish people. With some of Patrick’s writings at his disposal, he constructed a version of Patrick’s life that portrayed the Irish as a chosen people and Patrick as their prophet. Where he lacked biographical details, Muirchú simply filled in the blanks with stories that would have appealed to the seventh-Century mind.

Muirchú is only the first of a long line of people who’ve reinvented Patrick to justify their vision of Irishness.

5. The many faces of Patrick

When the Normans invaded Ireland in the 13th Century, one of the ways they justified their occupation was that they’d come to bring the errant Irish church back to the Church in Rome, which they claimed was the true church of Saint Patrick.

Reformation

After the Reformation, James Ussher, the by then Protestant Archbishop of Armagh, gave the Anglican Church of Ireland historical legitimacy by claiming it was the true successor to Saint Patrick’s Biblical Christian faith.

Not a nationalist hero

By the 19th Century, Patrick was so firmly linked to the Anglican Church of Ireland and the British establishment, that when the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell tried to invoke him as an Irish icon, his fellow nationalists rejected the idea outright.

Symbol of Irishness

It was really in America that Saint Patrick became the symbol of Irishness that he is today. After the Great Famine of the mid 19th Century, huge numbers of poor Irish people emigrated to the United States, especially New York. What had started out as a small scale and Protestant celebration of Saint Patrick in the mid 18th Century, evolved into the huge celebration of Irish identity and culture that we have today.

6. One saint

Today Saint Patrick is respected by all Christian communities in Ireland. He's the patron saint of the whole of Ireland and both the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the Anglican Church of Ireland have their seats in Armagh, with cathedrals dedicated to him. But there are also churches dedicated to Saint Patrick all over the world, from Melbourne to Karachi.

St Patrick's Anglican Cathedral in Armagh stands on a site that's been sacred since pre-Christian times, and legend has it Saint Patrick founded his first church here. There was an important church on this site in Muirchú's day in the ninth Century.

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The Roman Catholic Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh was built in the 19th Century, as the medieval cathedral dedicated to Saint Patrick had been retained since the Reformation by the Protestant Church of Ireland.

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Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin dates from the 13th Century and was said to have been constructed on the site of a well used by Saint Patrick. It was restored in the 19th Century thanks to a donation from the Guinness family.

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The neo-Gothic Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on New York’s 5th Avenue was the brainchild of the Irish-born Archbishop of New York, John Hughes. The cornerstone was laid in 1858 and it was partly financed from the contributions of Irish immigrants.

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Saint Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Melbourne was built in the 19th Century. As the Roman Catholic population of Melbourne was mostly Irish, the cathedral was dedicated to Saint Patrick.

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Saint Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Karachi was built under the British Raj when many Irish soldiers served in the British Army. It opened in 1881.

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7. Do patron saints cement identity?

The other patron saints of the nations of Britain have also been used through the ages to promote independence, cohesion and national identity.

Saint Andrew

Andrew became patron saint of Scotland after King Angus prayed for his help in defeating the English in AD832.

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Scotland

Andrew was the brother of Saint Peter, founder of the Roman church. This fraternal relationship was used by Scots to justify the independence of their church.

Saint David

David is the only patron saint of the nations of Britain and Ireland who was born, worked and died in his country.

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Wales

In the medieval period David's popularity was used to justify the independence of the Welsh church from Canterbury and to cement Welsh identity.

Saint George

Saint George was a Roman soldier from the Middle East, martyred because he objected to the persecution of Christians.

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England

English soldiers encountered Saint George during the Crusades. The Kings of England adopted him as the nation's symbol, recasting him as an English crusader.