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He was born somewhere along the west coast of Britain in the little settlement or village of Bannavem of Taburnia (vico banavem taburniae in his Confession), which has never been identified with certainty. Sites suggested include Dumbarton and Somerset, or the coastline of Wales or northern France; another possibility put forward for his birthplace is the settlement of Bannaventa in Northamptonshire, for raiders captured him with "many thousands of people" according to Patrick's autobiographical Confession, and sold them as slaves in Ireland.
In the Confessio Patrick mentions his father Calpornius, a deacon, civil official, and a town councillor, son of Potitus, who was a Romano-British priest. An old tradition makes his mother from the upper-class Gaulish family of Martin of Tours, though Patrick himself makes no such claim. According to his Confessio, at the age of about sixteen Patrick was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave to a Druidic chieftain named Milchu in Dalriada, County Antrim. Some speculate that Fochill in County Mayo is the more likely setting.
Although he came from a Christian family, he was not particularly religious before his capture. However, his enslavement markedly strengthened his faith. He escaped at the age of twenty-two and returned to Britain after the death of his father, and later becoming one of the first Christian missionaries in Ireland, being preceded by Palladius (died c.457/461).
Britain at this time was undergoing turmoil following the withdrawal of Roman troops in 407 and Roman central authority in 410. Having been under the Roman cloak for over 350 years, the Romano-British were having to look after themselves. Populations were on the move on the European continent, and the recently converted Christian Britain was being colonised by pagan Anglo-Saxons.
His first converted patron was Dichu, who made a gift of a large sabhall (barn) for a church sanctuary. This first sanctuary dedicated by St Patrick became in later years his chosen retreat. A monastery and church were erected there, and there Patrick died; the site, Saul County Down, retains the name Sabhall (pronounced "Sowel").
Patrick set up his see at Armagh and organized the church into territorial sees, as elsewhere in the West and East. While Patrick encouraged the Irish to become monks and nuns, it is not certain that he was a monk himself; it is even less likely that in his time the monastery became the principal unit of the Irish Church, although it was in later periods. The choice of Armagh may have been determined by the presence of a powerful king. There Patrick had a school and presumably a small familia in residence; from this base he made his missionary journeys. There seems to have been little contact with the Palladian Christianity of the southeast.
The story of the annual vernal fire that was to be lit by the High King at Tara, when all the fires were extinguished, to be renewed from the sacred fire from Tara, and of Patrick's rival, miraculously inextinguishable Christian bonfire on the hill of Slane at the opposite end of the valley, is famous among his many exploits. The season was associated with Easter by chroniclers who followed Patrick's own account in his Confessio.
Patrick was not the first Christian missionary to Ireland, as men such as Secundus and Palladius were active there before him. However, tradition accords him the most impact, and his missions seem to have been concentrated in the provinces of Ulster and Connaught which had never received Christians before. He established the Catholic Church throughout Ireland on lasting foundations: he travelled throughout the country preaching, teaching, building churches, opening schools and monasteries, converting chiefs and bards, and everywhere supporting his preaching with miracles. He threw down the idol of Crom Cruach in Leitrim.
Patrick wrote that he daily expected to be violently killed or enslaved again. He was an advocate for the abolition of slavery -- his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus protested British slave trading and the slaughter of a group of Irish Christians by Coroticus's raiding Christian Welshmen, and is the first surely identified literature of the British or Celtic Church. Patrick gathered many followers, including Saint Benignus, who would become his successor. His chief concerns were the raising up of native clergy, and abolishing paganism, idolatry, and sun-worship. He made no distinction of classes in his preaching and was himself ready for imprisonment or death.
Pious legend credits Patrick with banishing snakes from the island, though some suggest that for climatic reasons post-glacial Ireland never actually had snakes; one suggestion is that snakes referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids of that time and place, as shown for instance on coins minted in Gaul (see Carnutes), or that it could have referred to heretical beliefs such as Pelagianism, symbolized as "serpents". Legend also credits Patrick with teaching the Irish about the concept of the Trinity by showing people the shamrock, a three-leaved clover, using it to highlight the Christian dogma of 'three divine persons in the one god' (as opposed to the Arian heresy that was popular in Patrick's time).
In his use of Scripture and eschatological expectations, Patrick was typical of the 5th-century bishop. One of the traits which he retained as an old man was a consciousness of his being an unlearned exile and former slave and fugitive, who learned to trust God completely.
Patrick died in 493 AD according to the latest reconstruction of the old Irish annals. It is believed that March 17 was his death date (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica) and it is the date popularly associated with him as his feast, known as St. Patrick's Day.
St. Patrick is also patron of Nigeria, which was evangelized primarily by Irish clergy.
- The Confession of St Patrick
- St Patrick
- Saint Patrick
- Fr. Ciaran Needham SPS, "Saint Patrick's Life"
- Evidence regarding date of birth
- The Real St. Patrick and Celtic Spirituality
- Who Was St. Patrick?
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