The 400s were a troubled time in Europe. Rome, beleaguered by civil wars and the barbarian menace, finally abandoned her British province in 410 AD. The Emperor Honorius told the leaders of Roman Britain that they must “look to their own defenses.”
The powerful and ambitious Irish kingdoms on the other side of the Irish Sea began raiding wealthy Roman British towns for plunder and slaves. By the mid-400s a series of Irish-speaking tributary kingdoms had been established along the west coast of Britain, from Scotland to Cornwall.
Irish raiders kidnapped a 16-year old Roman Briton named Patrick in 403 AD. He was sold as a slave to a landowner named Milchu. After six years in slavery, working as a shepherd for Milchu in Northeastern Ireland, he escaped back to Britain.
Patrick, however, still thought about his former captors. Following rigorous training under St. Germain in Gaul, he was appointed by Pope Celestine to be “Ireland’s apostle” and convert the Irish to Christianity.
Efforts had been made to convert Ireland before. Bishop Palladius had already been sent to the country but abandoned the enterprise after encountering fierce opposition from the old druidic religion.
In 433, Patrick and his companions landed in Wicklow on the eastern coast. He decided to first visit his former owner Milchu in the North. A local chief called Dichu attempted to attack Patrick, but he was miraculously frozen as a statue until he abandoned the attempt.
On reaching Milchu’s fortress, Patrick found it on fire. Milchu, rather than meet his miracle-working former slave again, had decided to burn his palace, his treasures and himself instead.
The representatives of the old Celtic faith, the druids, realized that a countermove was needed. They asked the High King Laoghaire to invite the principle kings and chiefs to a massive feast at the capital Tara.
Every household in the country was commanded to extinguish its fires until the druids lit the official fire at Tara. This would represent the continued loyalty of the Irish to the old faith, in the face of the Christian challenge.
The night before, however, Patrick lit his own fire on the hill of Slane, directly opposite Tara. The outraged druids ordered Patrick killed and his fire extinguished, but no one was able to accomplish either task, and the next morning Patrick walked into the main hall of Tara.
Arch-druid Lochru cast a spell shrouding the fortress in a strange darkness, and levitated in order to attack Patrick. With a prayer, Patrick brought sunlight, which drove away the darkness and the druidic magic. Lochru fell from the air and was killed on a rock. It was clear that the new religion was a force to be reckoned with.
Impressed, the High King (although he never became Christian himself) then ordered that Patrick be given permission to preach anywhere in Ireland without being assaulted. Patrick spent the next 60 years traveling to every part of Ireland in his chariot, converting kings and people.
At Killala in the West of Ireland, he converted the King of Connacht, his six sons, and 12,000 of his people on one day.
In the center of the country, Patrick destroyed a massive pillar covered in gold slabs honoring Crom Cruach, one of the main gods of the old religion. For acts like that, he and his followers were captured 12 times, and there were numerous attempts to kill him.
One of his best-remembered lessons was on the Holy Trinity. He picked up a shamrock and explained that like the three-leaved plant, God, too, had three natures: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
His most famous miracle was ridding Ireland of snakes by ringing his bell – even today there are no snakes in Ireland.
St Patrick died of old age on March 17, 493, surrounded by his followers-the bishops, abbots and abbesses who would continue to lead the new church he had founded in Ireland.
St Patrick’s Day was made a public holiday in Ireland in 1903, after a successful Gaelic League campaign. For most of the 20th Century, the day typically meant Mass in the morning, a family dinner in the middle of the day and a small parade (of tractors, Irish dancers and local business and groups) in the afternoon. Bars were closed.
Since the late 1990s, parades in the major cities have been turned into “St Patrick’s Festivals.” Dublin’s festival attracted over one million people in 2005.