For many people, St. Patrick’s Day provides an excuse to wear green on March 17, go to a parade, and drink some Irish whiskey. But who was St. Patrick in real life?
The most common belief is that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. Ireland probably never had snakes, though, and the myth may refer to Patrick’s efforts to stamp out the serpent imagery used by the Druids. He also may have used the three-leafed shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity to the people he was trying to convert to Christianity as a missionary in Ireland.
Historians agree that Patrick was born in Roman-occupied Britain, the son of a Christian deacon. At age 16 he was captured and taken to Ireland, where he was a slave for six years.
During this time, his Christian faith strengthened. One day, according to a letter he wrote about his early life, he heard a voice promising he would soon return home. Shortly afterward he escaped his captors and went back to his family. He later wrote that an angel appeared to him in a dream, telling him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Patrick went back to the land where he had been a slave to convert the Irish and to minister to Christians living there.
Why do we celebrate him on March 17? That’s believed to be the date of his death. Although never formally canonized, Patrick came to be considered a saint. March 17 was celebrated as a religious holiday until 1903, when it became a public holiday in Ireland.