St. Patrick: How Pirates, a Druid Chieftain & Catholics Shaped the Man Behind the Legend

St. Patrick: How Pirates, a Druid Chieftain & Catholics Shaped the Man Behind the Legend March 11, 2023

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Leprechauns, snakes and shamrocks may come to mind when you think of St. Patrick, but the real man never met a leprechaun, nor did he encounter any snakes — at least in 5th century Ireland. What St.  Patrick did encounter were pirates and slavery, Druids and Christianity, and they all influenced his life. So, let’s meet the man behind the legend. Let’s meet the real St. Patrick.

Who Was He?

The man we know as St. Patrick was born in late 4th century Britain to wealthy Romanized parents — probably around 390 A.D. He was neither Irish nor an actual saint. His birthplace could have been England, Scotland or Wales, Britannica says, but even experts can’t identify his actual birthplace with any certainty.

Various accounts say that St. Patrick’s birth name was probably Maewyn Succat, though the spelling varies depending on your source. The name “Patrick” came later.

Determining the truth about the man behind the legend is difficult. Records of the sort we have today were nonexistent in St. Patrick’s time, and conflicting myths confused the truth. As time passed, actual events faded from memory and fanciful stories filled the void.

Maewyn’s parents were Christian, several sources say. His father may have been a man named Calpurnius, who was a Christian deacon and officer, while his grandfather may have been a priest. Nothing much is known about his mother since she was female and considered unimportant.

The boy lived in a Christian home, but religion wasn’t important to him until….


Maewyn’s first encounter with the Irish wasn’t a pleasant one, as he later recounted in his writing called Confessio or Confession. It occurred one day when the then-16-year-old was minding his own business on his family’s estate. Irish pirates attacked the villa and took the boy prisoner, Britannica tells us.

You might envision the teen being held hostage until his wealthy parents paid a hefty ransom, but you would be wrong. His capture was more akin to being shanghaied.

Irish pirates or raiders were notorious for snatching people and selling them into slavery. It was a common occurrence. Over time, pirates took “many thousands” of people, and Maewyn was unfortunate enough to be one of them.

Finding God

The pirates or raiders took him to Ireland, where they apparently sold him to a Druid chieftain, according to LifeWay Research, a research organization of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Druids were priests who “conducted religious rituals, foretold the future through soothsaying, used herbs and plants for healings, and were itinerant storytellers and historians,” according to “What Are Druids” on the Patheos website. Roman oppression and the rise of Christianity led to their decline. Read more here.

Ireland was still radically pagan during Maewyn’s life, and the man behind the legend turned to the Christian faith he had previously ignored. Consequently, he became a devout follower of the Lord.

Maewyn lived in captivity as a herdsman for six or seven long years before he had a vision or dream about escaping. He devised a plan, broke free, and made his way to modern-day France before heading home.

The journey wasn’t easy. He nearly starved and was held captive for a brief time before finally reuniting with his family.

The Man Behind the Legend

Maewyn had dreams or visions of returning to Ireland. Why, you may wonder, would he want to return to a land where he had been enslaved?

One story tells us that Maewyn had a second life-changing dream in which Irishmen asked him to help them escape slavery. Another tells of him dreaming that Irish pagans begged him to teach them.

Whatever the truth, the man behind the legend “studied in France to learn more about Christianity and become a priest before going to Ireland to become a missionary.” Learn more from Lifeway here.

Maewyn — or Patrick as he soon was called — convinced the pope to send him to Ireland as a missionary, and the pope did so, naming him “Patritius,” or “Patrick,” which means “father of his people.”

Britannica explains that Patrick “concentrated on the north and west of the country, achieving remarkable success; he did not himself claim to have converted all of Ireland,” although he is credited with bringing Christianity to the country.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The Plot Thickens

As I mentioned, legend has it that St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, but that’s an exaggeration. He did spread the Christian faith, but traditions in the south and southeast of Ireland mention saints who may have preceded St. Patrick, Britannica notes.

The first firm date associated with Christianity in Ireland is 431 A.D. In that year, the bishop of Auxerre in modern-day France proposed — and Pope Celestine I approved — a mission to Ireland by a man named Palladius, not Patrick.

There has been speculation that Palladius and Patrick might be the same man. The thought crossed my mind, but several sources tell us that they were two different men. I stand corrected.

“Confusion exists regarding the chronology of Patrick’s life and it is seriously contended that tradition came to merge the experience of two men, the continental Palladius and the Patrick of the Confessio,” according to Britannica.

Christianity Comes to Ireland

Palladius is known as the first bishop of Irish Christians. According to Lifeway, he was sent to Ireland five years before Patrick was. His mission was twofold: eliminate heresy and convert non-Christians to Catholicism. It failed.

“Palladius was repulsed by the inhabitants of Wicklow, where he landed. He then sailed northward and was at last driven by stress of weather toward the Orkneys, finding harbour, eventually, on the shores of Kincardineshire,” according to Library Ireland, an online organization that’s filled with information about Irish folklore, genealogy, history, social history and people.

Christianity Spreads

Christianity already existed in Ireland by the time Patrick arrived there as a missionary. It probably had spread slowly and haphazardly through a combination of trading with the European continent, Irish emigres and British captives taken prisoner by Irish raiders, according to the Irish Catholic Church. Read more here.

“All we can say with confidence is that British Christians, either directly or indirectly, influenced the spread of the faith to Ireland and that this influence may have been exerted before 431,” the church says.

An Effective “Influencer”

Patrick’s experience with the Irish language and culture apparently helped him succeed where previous missionaries to Ireland had failed, and the real legend of St. Patrick began to spread.

“Estimates are he baptized 10,000 Irish people and planted 300 churches,” Lifeway says. Those are amazing numbers.

He took an intelligent approach to evangelizing by focusing on chiefs and other influential people – the people we would call influencers. “As these people were converted, they could sway others. Successful missionaries today still recognize the value of Patrick’s strategy.”

Even so, missionary work wasn’t easy for the man behind the legend. “Patrick knew the Irish people. He loved the Irish people. As a result, he reached them for Christ – despite being beaten, robbed, and threatened with death,” Lifeway explained.

Christianity Meets Paganism

Patrick may have combined pagan rituals with church practices in order to succeed where previous missionaries failed. He knew people wouldn’t be receptive to his message if he tried to eliminate all of their existing pagan beliefs and rituals.

“Patrick chose to incorporate traditional (pagan) rituals into his lessons of Christianity instead of attempting to eradicate native Irish beliefs,” explains Learn Religions in a post called “St. Patrick and the Snakes.”

“For instance, he used bonfires to celebrate Easter since the Irish were used to honoring their gods with fire. He also superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross, so that veneration of the symbol would seem more natural to the Irish.”

St. Patrick and the Snakes

“St. Patrick is known as a symbol of Ireland, particularly around every March. While he is obviously not pagan at all – the title of Saint should give that away – there’s often some discussion about him each year, because he’s allegedly the guy who drove ancient Irish Paganism away from the Emerald Isle,” Learn Religions continues.

That myth combines pagans and snakes. According to legend, St. Patrick stood on an Irish hillside and gave a sermon that sent all of Ireland’s snakes slithering into the sea. The snakes, it seems, were symbols ofpaganism.

There are some problems with this story. One is that all of Ireland’s snakes were long gone before St. Patrick lived. They had been killed during the last ice age roughly 10,000 years earlier and had never returned because they couldn’t survive the cold climate. It’s also untrue because major centers of paganism remained after his death.

And there’s also the fact that where the Christian religion was embraced, “it was often taken on in an enculturated form, so that Christians continued to follow many of the practices and traditions which were handed to them by their pre-Christian forefathers.” So says Patheos contributor Henry Karlson in his post “St. Patrick and the Snakes.” Read his post here.

Pagans still exist, and some of them still rail against St. Patrick. One of the unhappy ones is Patheos contributor Galina Kraskova. Read her post about a holiday she could live without — “Happy St. Patrick’s Day? I Don’t Think So,” — here.

Never a “Saint”

Millions of people around the world know Patrick as “Saint” Patrick, yet he never attained true sainthood. He wasn’t really a saint.

The Catholic Church didn’t officially canonize him because it had no formal canonization process during the 5th century. He became known as St. Patrick when local Irish leaders recognized him for spending decades “proclaiming the gospel across Ireland,” Lifeway says.

St. Patrick reportedly died on March 17, 460 A.D., having “paved the way for Ireland to become one of the centers of European Christianity,” the organization tells tells us.

So that’s the real tale of St. Patrick…more or less…if you take into account that people were terrible recordkeepers in St. Patrick’s time…and remember that people have had more than 1,600 years to embellish the story.

St. Patrick’s Day Traditions

In modern times, people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with shamrocks and tales of leprechauns, corn beef and cabbage, colorful parades, Irish music, and lots of green — green clothing, green hair and makeup, green beer and even green rivers.

That’s quite a change from the years immediately after St. Patrick’s death, when he was mostly forgotten. His legend didn’t begin to grow until centuries later, and even then, it developed slowly, and stories became a tangled web of myths.


The shamrock is associated with St. Patrick in tradition if not fact. The shamrock is a three-leaf plant that he may have used it to explain the Trinity to newly converted Christians. There’s always the chance that he never used a shamrock to teach, but it’s a nice story.

The first St. Patrick’s parade was held in the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, Fla., in 1601. It honored the settlement’s patron saint of corn: St. Patrick. The idea of holding parades spread from the United States to Ireland sometime later.

St. Patrick’s Day began in Ireland in 1631 as a minor religious holiday. Basically, pubs closed and people went to church.

Corned beef and cabbage became the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal after millions of Irish people fled to the U.S. to escape a terrible potato famine in their homeland. The newly arrived Irish discovered that they could make a good, inexpensive meal by cooking a mixture of corned beef and cabbage, turnips or potatoes. Ironically, the Irish who lived in Ireland didn’t eat beef very often.

At the beginning of the 21st century, people around the world decided to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by lighting major monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum and the pyramids in Giza with green lights.

Green hasn’t always been the color associated with St. Patrick’s Day or the Irish. Before 1798, Ireland’s color was blue. Things changed when the Irish rebelled against the British in 1798 and those fighting chose to wear green, which was a good contrast to the Brits’ red uniforms. They also started singing “The Wearing of the Green.”

Want to learn more? Check out other St. Patrick’s Day traditions at the National Geographic website here.

About Ginny Baxter
Ginny Baxter is a former journalist and public relations professional whose passion is writing. A graduate of Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, Ginny majored in English with a focus on journalism. She later studied public relations at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She comes from a progressive Christian family and has been an active church member since childhood. You can read more about the author here.

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