St. Patrick’s real life more fascinating than the myths

St. Patrick’s Day has become an excuse for Americans of all ethnic backgrounds to break out the green and head to their local parade or pub and imbibe in Irish beer and corned beef and cabbage.

And just in time for this year’s celebration of St. Patrick’s feast day comes a book that will have many — even the true Irish — saying, “I didn’t know that” about Ireland’s beloved patron saint.

Biography of St. Patrick is due out just in time for the patron saint of Ireland's feast day, March 17.
A biography of St. Patrick is due out just in time for the patron saint of Ireland’s feast day, March 17.

Many of the stories about St. Patrick that have been passed down for generations, including the one about him ridding Ireland of its snakes, are false, says an expert in Celtic and classical studies at Washington University in St. Louis in a book being released in early March.

But that’s not to say that St. Patrick didn’t live an intriguing life worthy of a daylong celebration — and in Ireland, a weeklong.

In Philip M. Freeman’s “St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography,” Patrick’s life is more akin to something out of a Hollywood action movie script — the reality of it is far more fascinating than the myth.

From being kidnapped by pirates from his home in Britain, to living as a slave for six years in Ireland, to escaping, but then returning to the country he was held hostage in to minister to the people there, the book tells the tale of a remarkable man.

Freeman, an assistant professor of classics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, writes that St. Patrick was born around the year 390 to an aristocratic family. At age 15, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates from his parents’ villa in the Roman province of Britain and sold into slavery. During six years of slavery in Ireland, Patrick watched over sheep day and night.

During his years as a slave, Patrick, who was raised as a Roman citizen and a nominal Christian, destined for the privileged life of the nobility, experienced a gradual but profound religious awakening, says Freeman. He escaped from Ireland — after walking nearly 200 miles across its bogs and mountains to get to the coast — on a ship full of pagan sailors and eventually made his way back to his family in Britain.

“Almost more amazing than all of that, however, is that he returned to Ireland to spread the Christian gospel and minister to the people who once held him captive,” says Freeman. And although he missed the final years of his general education while he was enslaved, Patrick was made a bishop and was able to convert many of the Irish people.

Revealing letters

In his book, Freeman closely examines two letters written by St. Patrick. The letters are the earliest surviving documents written by anyone in Ireland. The book contains Freeman’s translations of the letters from Latin.

“The letters reveal the heart and soul of a truly remarkable man,” says Freeman, who is also author of “Ireland and the Classical World.” “We know a lot about more famous people from Greek and Roman times, such as Caesar and Alexander The Great, but we don’t know a whole lot about how they felt. Patrick’s letters reveal that he had a lot of faith and a lot of gumption, but he had a lot of insecurities as well.

“He was terribly embarrassed that his Latin wasn’t very good,” Freeman continues. “He was also given to fits of depression. The impression you get from letters is of a real person, not some plastic icon. The letters tell of hope in an uncertain time and are truly inspirational, even if you aren’t Christian. It’s really an amazing story.”

St. Patrick is celebrated today as a man who helped to convert thousands of the Irish people to Christianity from paganism. “For that fact, he has a definite appeal to people of Irish decent around the world,” Freeman says. “But St. Patrick’s Day has become more of a cultural than religious event, with people who are not Irish at all celebrating the day. Many of them probably don’t even know who the real St. Patrick was.”

Several myths about Patrick abound and lead people to have a slightly distorted view of his accomplishments, says Freeman.

St. Patrick is remembered by many for driving the snakes out of Ireland, triumphing over Pagan Druids and their supernatural powers, and using three-leafed shamrocks as an aid to explaining the Trinity, the union of three divine persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

“These stories were all made up centuries later by well-meaning monks,” Freeman says. “The fact is, there were never any snakes in Ireland. Snakes are not native to that country. And while Patrick may very well have used a clover to talk about the Trinity, we have no direct evidence for that.”

As for Patrick’s contests with the Druids, Freeman adds, “Patrick’s battle stories are great reading, but they are pure fiction.”

In “St. Patrick of Ireland,” Freeman paints a picture of a man who survived great hardships to convert eventual followers to Christianity. The book is also the story of a world in the flux of change — the collapsing Roman Empire and a move from the Classical world to the Medieval.

The story of St. Patrick is a great window into the worlds of slavery, the lives of women and what it was like to live at a time when the Roman Empire was crumbling. “The life of a woman in ancient Ireland was difficult, especially for female slaves,” Freeman said. “But Patrick taught that all people, male or female, slave or free, were equal in the eyes of God. Again and again in his letters, Patrick stresses his deep concern for the welfare of Irish women.”