St. Patrick… He’s the man at the end of the rainbow with a shamrock and a pot of gold, right? Well, maybe not. But just who was St. Patrick, and what did he do?

Was He Irish?

Patrick was actually born in England during the fourth century. His family had strong Christian connections, but religion was not a major part of his growing years.

In his teens, Patrick was captured and taken to Ireland, where he became a sheep-tending slave. At that time, the primary religion in Ireland was Druidism, a Pagan belief system. But during his captivity, Patrick’s Christian faith became real to him. He prayed constantly to God, and God’s love became quite near to him.

After six years of slavery, Patrick escaped and returned to England. However, he was not entirely free of Ireland, for he became determined to return and share the Gospel with the Irish people. After becoming a priest, Patrick set off for Ireland once more to share God’s grace in the land where he had once been a slave.

During the nearly 30 years he spent ministering in Ireland, he converted thousands of Irish people to Christianity. He preached the Gospel, built churches and organized church leaders. Patrick died in Ireland around 461.

What Does a Shamrock Have to Do with Him?

According to legend, Patrick used clovers to teach the Irish about the Trinity. He pointed out that just as the shamrock has three leaves, but is one plant, so the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God in three persons.

Did this really happen? It’s possible, but we may never know for sure. Even before Patrick’s time, the shamrock was considered a sacred symbol in Ireland, so it might have been an ideal lesson for teaching the Irish people about the nature of God, similarly to how Paul used the Athenians’ worship of false gods as a basis for teaching them about “The God that made the world and all things therein … Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:2).

Regardless of whether this story is properly credited to St. Patrick, the shamrock has become a universal symbol of St. Patrick’s Day, and using its three leaves to illustrate the Trinity can still be helpful for Christians today.

Did He Banish the Snakes from Ireland?

Snake-haters, rejoice! You won’t find snakes in Ireland. Their absence has often been credited to St. Patrick, who was said to have driven them out.

However, this one is more likely myth than fact. Scientists say that it doesn’t seem Ireland ever had snakes, whether before or after Patrick’s time there.

There are plenty of additional legends that have been attributed to Patrick. For example, it’s said that his hand once glowed in the night to provide light for finding lost horses and that his walking stick once took root in the ground while he was preaching in a town. Did these things really happen? As with most legends, there is probably a bit of truth mixed in with a dose of fiction in many of the stories about Patrick’s life.

One thing is certain, however. Patrick is honored in Ireland and throughout the world, because the love of God compelled him to return to his land of captivity to share the Gospel with the Irish people.

How Can I Learn More?

If you’d like to read more about St. Patrick, Catholic Online provides a page all about this man. It includes a biography of his life, a list of legends associated with him and photographs of places related to him.

For teaching children the about the real man behind modern St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, try the book “Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland” by Tomie DePaola. This picture book by a beloved author teaches readers about how love for God and faith in Him strengthened Patrick as he shared Christianity with the people of Ireland. In life and in death, Patrick’s work brought the Gospel to this nation.

What will you do for St. Patrick’s Day? As you plan your celebrations, consider how you can share God’s message of grace with others, just like Patrick did.

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