Who was the real Saint Patrick?

Discover the myths behind the Irish patron saint

What do you know about Saint Patrick? Probably his greatest stunts: walking barefoot up a mountain, turning his walking stick into a living tree, driving all the snakes out of Ireland, baptising hundreds of people in a single day.

The reality is much more interesting. From his capture at age 16 by Irish raiders to his creation of the Celtic cross, the legacy of Saint Patrick is woven throughout the culture and landscape of the Emerald Isle.

From British teen to Irish slave

The real St Patrick was a Brit, born somewhere near the end of the fourth century. His father was a Christian deacon and Patrick had a wealthy upbringing. But at age 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken back to Co Mayo, on Ireland’s west coast, to work as a shepherd. And a pretty as rural Ireland remains today, it’s still easy to imagine how isolated he must have felt as he tended sheep with no human company, sleeping outdoors often with little or no food.

A courageous escape

Scared and lonely, he turned to religion, drawing on his Christian upbringing for solace. Following an angel visitation in a dream, he finally escaped six years later aboard a ship back to Britain. After returning home, Patrick felt his calling to the church after, he reported later, his second visitation in which an angel had told him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Fifteen years later (sometime after 431 CE) he was ordained and appointed as successor to St Palladius, the first bishop of Ireland. His mission was to convert as many Irish pagans as possible.

The origins of the Celtic Cross

Patrick knew the most effective way to spread the word would be to weave the Christian doctrine into existing belief systems, so he took pagan customs and incorporated them into his lessons. His Easters were celebrated with bonfires, which went down well with the Druids. Importantly, he was the person who first stuck the powerful pagan sun symbol over the Christian cross to create what’s now known as the Celtic Cross – a ubiquitous sight throughout graveyards, churches and religious jewellery across Ireland.

The sacred well of Saint Patrick's Cathedral

Saint Patrick is believed to have been active in Dublin in the fifth century, and used a well here to baptise new Christians. It is thought the well lies somewhere in the grounds of what is now known as Saint Patrick's Cathedral.

The first record of a church existing on the site of the cathedral dates back to 890, when King Gregory of Scotland visited a church here. It was chosen in 1190 by Archbishop John Comyn to be raised to cathedral status, and eventually the small wooden church was replaced by today's structure. The tallest church in Ireland, Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin is the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland, which serves both Protestant and Catholic Christians.

The resting place of Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick is buried in Downpatrick, south of Belfast. He set up his first church here, and he was thought to have made his first convert in the nearby town of Saul - which is also where he died. The surrounding Mourne Mountains are an area of outstanding natural beauty, and one of the most picturesque drives in the world. Where better for such a legendary figure to rest?