St Patrick: from solitary slave to revolutionary religious figure

Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations at Montserrat.

Parades, Irish bars, music and festivities are the hallmarks of a modern Saint Patrick’s Day. But who was Saint Patrick, the missionary, a man of deep zeal to spread the gospel, making Ireland the center from which Christianity then spread throughout Europe? His legacy is felt to this day, at home and around the world. Ireland for the ancients has truly become the land of saints and scholars.

The ancient Roman Empire whose tentacles of power had reached all over Europe and Britain was collapsing in the 5th century AD. Raiders sailed over the Irish Sea to kidnap Welsh and English victims to sell as slaves on their return to Ireland. One wonders if Patrick, later St Patrick, was English or Welsh, but regardless, the teenager fell prey to ruthless individuals we would today call human traffickers. One day, while strolling through a coastal area, a slippery 16-year-old came face to face with a band of marauding looters who abducted him.

Bad situation

Patrick’s family was Christian, although he didn’t worry too much about religion as a teenager. His father was said to be a deacon and his grandfather a priest in the early church of their homeland. When he was kidnapped, Patrick’s situation was dire at first. He did not speak the language of the Irish, then he was sold as a slave to look after and watch over the herd of a slave lord who, under his watchful watch, avoided attacks by wolves.

Patrick’s Christian upbringing came back to him with force as he spent long days on the Irish hills in prayer, through frost, snow and storms and never ceased to call on his God. A lesser mortal might have given up on this terrible situation, but not Patrick.

Then one night he had a dream, later recorded in his Confession, that “God spoke to him.” After the vision he got up and left his slave-lord and walked 200 miles to a place he saw in the dream, which turned out to be Wexford. In Wexford he spotted a boat seen in his dream and asked the owner if he could go with them. But without money, we told him not on your nelly! The story goes that Patrick prayed at the water’s edge and the owner of the boat, seeing him, then changed his mind and asked Patrick to join them, but not before he participated in a non-Christian ritual. He refused to do what was asked of him, and not having offended his conscience, they let him board the ship anyway with their full approval. The boat sailed to Britain and Patrick was reunited with his family who he stayed with for some time.

Back home, Patrick had another vision, this time of a man bringing him thousands of scrolls, and on one of the letters he saw the words “voice of the Irish”, and he heard the ‘calling the Irish people ‘all as one’ as he read, ‘we employ you holy boy to come and live with us.’

Patrick trained in the Christian priesthood and after 20 years set foot in Ireland again. Patrick’s passionate preaching and his love for the people of Ireland soon meant that the old ways of the Druids were swept away and replaced by the new practices of the Christian Church. Ireland would never be the same again; its Celtic heritage passing through the mists of time.

St Patrick and Cavan

St Patrick’s journey took him to all parts of Ireland, including the territory now called Cavan, where he interrupted the murderous rituals of Magh Sleacht in the West; to defeat the geargan cailleach near Bailieborough in the East. He visited sites on which churches bearing his name were later built, such as the old church at Drumgoon Hill, Cootehill. The county has many wells dedicated to the saint; water being an important part of baptism, and from which sacred wells flowed for healing, for example, St Patrick’s well inside the remains of St Patrick’s Church in the old cemetery of Moybologue.

At Castletara, St Patrick’s Well, Carrickateane, is a few yards from the road out of Cavan for Cootehill, and according to the Irish Folklore Commission it was said to ‘cure sore eyes’. In the townland of Drumacleesskin, in the parish of Drung, the Folklore Commission mentioned a well dedicated to St Patrick where Daniel Riley washed and nursed his aching feet. St Patrick’s name is also honored in schools, colleges and universities that bear his name.

St. Patrick in the Caribbean

Every March 17, a global phenomenon is seen everywhere from Cavan to the Caribbean. Even in the United States, the president has an audience with the Irish Taoiseach. This is an auspicious occasion for Ireland and the Diaspora. Then in the Caribbean there are the St. Patrick’s Day commemorations at Kinsale, Montserrat.

Around 2000, the island of Montserrat was rebranded internationally as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean where St. Patrick’s Day is a slightly different but very important festival. Most of Montserrat’s inhabitants are descendants of Irish indentured slaves from the time of Oliver Cromwell. An early census of the island showed that most of the inhabitants were Irish, living alongside African, English and other slaves. The unfortunate Irish and African slaves must have identified with St Patrick who was once a slave too.

In Montserrat, St. Patrick’s Day is a reminder of its Irish heritage and a failed uprising caused by Afro-Caribbean slaves on March 17, 1768, when 19 slaves were executed. Some of the slave masters were Irish themselves and the slaves thought St. Patrick’s Day was a good time to plan the attack as many of the islanders would be drunk. An Irish woman heard the plans, and their masters were armed and ready.

Since 1985, March 17 has been an official holiday for islanders, in honor of their African and Irish heritage. The festivities take the form of a 10-day program of parades, lectures and cultural activities. Montserrat loves its Irish heritage and, just like in Ireland, you’ll be sure to get an excellent Céad Míle Fáilte.


Charles Moore: draper and politician

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