One of the original victims of the malaise that has brought us “cancel culture” was St. Patrick, in that March 17 has nothing to do with the fifth-century missionary saint. A religious feast that was celebrated quietly for a thousand years in Ireland has become a roaring booze fest in America (at least it was in the pre-COVID world—some of the things COVID is killing may not be tragic losses). But, perhaps by a certain point of view and a keen eye for Divine Providence, St. Patrick’s Day might yet, despite it all, have something to do with the missionary saint of the Emerald Isle.
Irish immigrants to the United States first celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in Boston in 1737 and held the first parade in New York in 1762. It is peculiar, though, how Americans have come to “honor” St. Patrick since then—if it is even St. Patrick they are honoring or some secular concept of being Irish. American culture has a way of brutalizing ancient culture, and that because America is a breeding ground for a new race of savages—a new race of pagans with a new pantheon of idols.
The United States is still, even in the 21st century, a missionary country. Yet, by some mystical irony, the one and only saint that is universally “honored” in the land of the neo-pagans is St. Patrick the Missionary. Though his day has been ravaged along with St. Valentine’s and St. Nicholas’s, at least St. Patrick is yet remembered as a saint.
From captive and slave to bishop and missionary
Like any tale worth its salt, the Apostle of Ireland’s begins with a bang. The black-hulled sloop of the dreaded Irish king and marauder, Niall of the Nine Hostages, came roaring down the shores of a coastal town in Scotland. His pirates raided the village, dragging droves of captives aboard their groaning vessel. Among the prisoners was a lad of sixteen named Patrick: son of Calpornius, a Roman official, and his wife Conchessa, sister of St. Martin of Tours. Patrick was a boy who would learn fearlessness from his fearful years as a slave and become the kindler of the flame of faith for the worshippers of sun and tree, converting them to the Son Who hung on a tree.
Patrick was sold as a slave to the Druid high-priest Milchu in the northern Irish over-kingdom of Dalriada, where he learned Gaelic and the rites of Druidism. He learned to make cheese and butter with his master’s children. And he learned to pray on the slopes of Slemish, fending against weather and wolves and finding solace in solitude. After six years, however, a dream shattered the peace Patrick had found as a slave. “Patrick!” a voice called through his sleep, “Your ship is ready! Arise and go!”
Patrick arose and went. Taking nothing, he slipped from his master’s house and fled two hundred miles down the western shore to Killala Bay, where he saw a ship disembarking. “Your ship departs, Patrick!” the voice sounded again in his ears. Patrick plunged into the surf and caught a rope tossed to him by one of the sailors. He was a free man. Young and strong, Patrick was welcomed as one of the crew. When a storm ran the ship aground in France, Patrick found his way to a monastery in Marmoûtiers where he met with his uncle, Martin of Tours, and vowed to become a priest.
Taking Martin’s advice, Patrick traveled to the island of Lérins and was ordained under the patronage of St. Germain. After years of missionary work among the Morini, Patrick was chosen by his holy superior to accompany him to Britain to defend the Faith against the Pelagian heresy.
Then Patrick had another life-changing dream. “O holy one,” voices cried out in Gaelic, “return to Erin. Walk amongst us once more.” Patrick’s heart quickened to the drumbeat of divine destiny. On the recommendation of Germain, Pope St. Celestine charged Patrick to sail back to the land of his captors as a bishop and gather the Irish into the fold of God’s Church—a task abandoned by many missionaries for fear of fierce chieftains and ghostly Druids.
Setting foot once again on Ireland’s shore, Patrick and his companions were met by armed sentinels. The bishop strode to meet them boldly, announcing in their own tongue that he, a runaway slave, had returned to travel to Dalriada to pay a ransom to his master and offer him the freedom of the Truth and the glad tidings of Redemption. Astounded, the soldiers begged to know more. Before beginning his pilgrimage that day, Patrick baptized the first of the Irish Catholics.
When word of this stranger spread over the countryside, the wild chief, Dichu, vowed to slay Patrick. He hunted down the missionary, confronted him, and raising his sword to kill, became the object of Patrick’s first miracle. The savage’s sword arm grew as rigid as stone and he was unable to move it. Overwhelmed, Dichu offered his barn to Patrick as a peace-offering, in which Patrick offered the first Sacrifice of the Mass in Ireland, and dedicated the barn as her first church, naming the holy site Sabhall.
Fire, darkness, and Easter morning
News of this miraculous coming reached Milchu, Patrick’s former master, who set fire to his house and perished in the conflagration before submitting to his slave, even as Patrick mounted Slemish again to see the old castle falling in flame. It was then that Patrick learned of the great spring gathering of the chieftains and Druid priests at the castle of the High King Laoghire in Tara. On the night before Easter Sunday, 433 all the fires in the kingdom were to be put out until the Druids lit the New Year Fire. That year’s burning was regarded with especial importance since the Druid oracles had foretold that a messenger of Christ had landed in Erin.
That very messenger mounted the Hill of Slade, across the valley from Tara castle, and sent up a Paschal bonfire in flagrant opposition to the Druids. Being of a fiery disposition, Patrick bore no regard for the possibility of retributions of this righteous act. The Irish New Year burned in the Light of Christ. Meanwhile, the Druids stood in horror at this profanity and implored that King Laoghire retaliate, lest the fire blaze forever in their land. The king commanded soldiers to swarm the Hill of Slade and extinguish Patrick’s defiant fire. Troops labored up the hill, laden with vessels of water and earth to douse the Christian flame; but their efforts failed to quench the fire. They could not smother the flames nor attack the man who knelt in their roaring glow. A Divine power shielded both the Holy Fire and the holy man who kindled it. The soldiers slunk into the darkness, defeated and dumbfounded.
When Easter morning dawned, Patrick marched on Tara with his followers. The valley below the castle was filled with an army of Druids, who summoned up their most dreadful incantations to arrest the approach of Patrick. As they murmured and screamed their spells, the sun was suddenly obscured, and a darkness fell that struck the bravest among them with dread. Patrick challenged the Druids to dispel the shadow and, when they failed by the power of all their gods, he called on the One God and sunlight flooded the valley once again. At this, the Arch-Druid summoned up demons to exalt him and he was borne bodily into the air. But the prayer of Patrick brought him hurtling back to earth and dashed to death upon the stony ground.
King Laoghire, in wonderment of such power and courage, sent word that he would speak with Patrick to learn of the God he served. The Druids were white with rage and set an ambush, determined to murder this invader and scorner of their dark arts. As Patrick approached the fortress with his company, the Druids set upon them with blade and club. Then, as legend has it, Patrick and his men became a herd of deer, who leapt through the throng of attackers singing a song that has been sung ever since known as the “Lorica of St. Patrick” or “St Patrick’s Breastplate.”
Meeting with Laoghire and his chieftains on that Easter day, Patrick is said to have professed the mystery of the Trinity, plucking a shamrock from the grass and disclosing that the greatest secret of heaven lay smiling in the sun beneath their feet. Moved by the eloquence of this marvel of a man, the King granted Patrick permission to preach the true Faith to the peoples of Erin.
The fearless priest of fiery faith
Over the next thirty years, Patrick strode the hills and fields of Ireland with his retinue, braving storm, hunger, and hardship, turning hearts to beat in time with the Sacred Heart. His helpers raised hundreds of churches. His authority ordained thousands of priests. His hand baptized countless souls. Patrick traveled with an army geared for the conversion of a nation, comprised of priests, judges, smiths, soldiers, cooks, gardeners, brewers, farmers, masons, carpenters, brick-makers, artists, tailors, poets, and musicians.
Wherever they pitched camp, there would a church be built and outfitted, and a village baptized into a parish before they took the road again. The course that Patrick set Christianized the whole of Ireland within two hundred years of his ministry beginning, making Ireland the only country in Europe to kneel before the Cross peacefully, bringing an end to slavery, human sacrifice, and intertribal warfare.
Towards the end of his life, Patrick often withdrew into the mountains—now known as Croagh Patrick—to hold conference with his Lord. There he battled the elements and demonic powers, doing penance for Divine Mercy upon the Irish race. The outcast demons would gather round the crags in the shape of black birds of prey, swooping and screaming to disturb the holy bishop in his meditations. Patrick was known to drive these fiends from his presence by ringing an iron bell, whose tolling would echo over Erin, scattering all evil creatures—particularly snakes, as the legends go—and drive them into the sea.
Such was the power of St. Patrick, who brought peace and joy to the people he had evangelized and delivered from the bonds of paganism. St. Brigid and her virgins prepared his deathbed at Sabhall, where Patrick beheld a vision of Ireland aglow with the fire of faith—flames that would never be extinguished. Patrick received his crown of glory on March 17, 493, having come to a land in darkness and left it in light.
Granted, March 17 is usually kept by drinking a wee bit while wearing o’ the green. But still, the day is kept. Granted, the day is hopelessly littered with sequin shamrocks, leering leprechauns, and green beer. But still, the day is the one day when “everyone is Irish,” and pagans hail the very one that saved the Irish—and in that lies a strange and subtle hope that the pagans of modernity might unknowingly surrender their souls in some way to the prayers of St. Patrick, the patron of God’s pagans.
In that hope, dreary though it may seem, Catholics should do all they can to tell St. Patrick’s tale to those who will hear it and, thus, do all they can to bring the man back into the melee. Patrick was well used to ungodly brouhahas, and perhaps we can serve as his ministers by telling a story or two over a pint or two of Guinness and leave it up to grace of the Almighty to bring the real St. Patrick, that fearless priest of fiery faith, back to work among the lackluster pagans of this age.
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