We credit St. Patrick for bringing Christianity to Ireland and banishing the island’s snakes.
But post-glacial Ireland never had snakes and the saint recognized on March 17 is actually a combination of two men, Patrick and Palladius, with the latter being the first to bring Christianity to the Celts.
While recognized a saint, Patrick was never canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, as he died before the official sainthood process began. And in an odd path to the church, his father possibly became a church deacon for the tax breaks – though the jury is out on Patrick's motivations.
Visions and revisions
Patrick is remembered because he alone left behind documentation of his time in Ireland. His two Latin letters survive: the Confession of Saint Patrick and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.
“He left documents behind so he could be talked about, whereas the other missionaries did not,” says Carmel McCaffrey, author of “In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish from Neolithic Times to the Coming of the English.”
Together, those letters give us a look at a man who cared deeply for the Druids, she said by telephone from Maryland.
Patrick joined the church as a young lad. At the age of sixteen, he was taken prisoner by a group of Irish raiders who were attacking his family’s British estate. Brought to Ireland, he was forced to work as a shepherd. According to his letters, he turned to religion for solace and was told in a dream to run to the coast where he would find escape.
Patrick’s work is now the stuff of legend, though he wasn’t even worth mentioning in a 613 letter to Pope Boniface IV from the Irish missionary Columbanus, who solely credits Palladius for bringing Christianity to Ireland.
Along with the myth that Patrick alone brought the Bible to the pagan Druids is that he chased out Ireland’s snakes.
Ireland never had snakes
But Ireland – along with New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica – never had snakes aside from in zoos and as pets. “So far, no serpent has successfully migrated across the open ocean to a new terrestrial home,” according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
If the snakes only symbolize paganism, which St. Patrick is also credited for banishing, then the legend is still wrong, because it overlooks missionaries such as Palladius. The scholar T. F. O’Rahilly, in his 1942 lecture “The Two Patricks,” proposed that the man known as St. Patrick is actually a blend of Palladius and Patrick.
“There were a number of others before Patrick,” says Ms. McCaffrey, the Irish scholar. “Patrick was not alone and he was not the first. He was not the converter of the Irish.”
March 17 is believed to be Patrick's death date in 460 AD, though even this is a guestimate.
McCaffrey, a former professor of Irish history and Irish literature at Johns Hopkins University, spent five years working on the PBS special “In Search of Ancient Ireland” and the resulting book, “In Search of Ireland’s Hero’s.” During her research, she found that because of the two letters that Patrick left behind, church officials developed a cult of personality around him, much of it untrue.
Such myths include that he used the shamrock to teach the concept of a trinity.
But McCaffrey says St. Patrick was still exceptional because of his love for the Irish.
"In the letters, his passion and his commitment to his people is quite striking," she says. "...He was living with pagans, yet he was Christian, and he found them to be a gentle, kind people, despite the fact they had enslaved him."
Editors Note: This article was amended to make the following corrections: The Roman Catholic Church does recognize Patrick as a saint, and it was his father – not himself – that possibly became a Christian for the tax benefits, according to The History Channel.