History of St. Patrick: Was He British?


Although much of the life of the patron saint and Apostle of Ireland is shrouded in legend, St. Patrick was probably born around AD 389. Stories are told of Patrick’s many contests with Druids, pagans, and polytheists, as well as the well-known but unlikely story of him driving the snakes from Ireland. More on that later.

What we know about him comes from his memoir, Confessio, which he wrote near the end of his life. It begins,

“I, Patrick, a sinner, most uncultivated and least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, who was of the village of Bannavem Taberniea.”


Patrick Kidnapped

He was born in the Severn Valley in southwest England, though claims have been made that he was born in Wales or Scotland. In any case, he was British, not Irish. He was doubtless educated in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain under a Christian influence with a reverence for the Roman Empire, of which he was a citizen. His father was a landowner, and together with his family, he lived on their estate.

At the age of sixteen, when he claimed he “did not then know the true God,” he was carried off by a band of Irish marauders. Irish tradition says he tended the herds of a chieftain named Milchu in County Antrim. His bondage lasted for six years, during which time, as he wrote, “turned with all my heart to the Lord my God.”


Patrick’s Escape

He fled 200 miles to the coast of Wicklow in eastern Ireland and encountered a ship engaged in the export of Irish wolf dogs. After three days at sea, the traders landed, probably on the west coast of Gaul, and journeyed twenty-eight days through the “desert.” At the end of two months, Patrick parted company with his companions and spent a few years in the monastery on the island of Lerins off the coast of southern France.

After returning home from the Mediterranean, the idea of missionary enterprise in Ireland came to him. He seems to have proceeded to Auxerre in north-central France, where he was ordained by Bishop Amator and spent at least fourteen years there. But he felt called to Ireland. In his book Confessio, he recounted:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”


St. Patrick back in Ireland

Arriving back in Ireland in perhaps 432, Patrick was both an evangelist of the gospel of Jesus and an organizer of the faithful. Patrick converted the Irish, who practiced a type of Celtic polytheism at that time. He battled heresy and engaged in trials of skill against Druids.

There is some evidence that he traveled to Rome around 441-443 and brought back with him some valuable relics. On his return, he founded the church and monastery of Armagh in Northern Ireland. Some years later, he retired, probably to Saul in Dalaradia. It is believed he died on March 17, sometime in the later 400s.


St Patrick’s, Dublin

As one travels through Ireland, one sees many stories and legends about Patrick. One story in Dublin is about the St. Patrick Cathedral (pictured on the left.)


St. Patrick’s baptistery

It is situated at the site of an old well where Patrick baptized converts into the faith. A stone tablet commemorating the location (pictured at right) is in front of the church.


St. Patrick Legends

Other legends report him ridding Ireland of snakes, though it is unlikely that post-ice-age Ireland had any snakes. For another view on this story of the snakes, see my three articles on the history of St. Patrick associated with the west of Ireland at Croagh Patrick in County Mayo on Reek Sunday.


St. Patrick Celebrations

St. Patrick's DayIn modern times, the feast associated with his death on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, has become primarily an ethnic holiday celebrating Irish heritage in much the same way as Columbus Day is a celebration of Italian ethnicity in the United States. Indeed, major Irish celebrations of the day in the United States predated large public celebrations in Ireland itself!


St. Patrick’s Day in Boston

The first celebration was likely in Boston among Irish immigrants in 1737. In New York, the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration was held in 1756 at the Crown and Thistle Tavern, where it celebrated all things Irish but was of a secular nature. In 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the British army celebrated the first parade in New York City.


St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago

Chicago green


In Chicago, there are two St. Patrick’s Day Parades, and they dye their river green.


St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

In Ireland, the celebration was primarily a religious one until the 1970s when bars and pubs were closed.


St. Patrick’s Day Holiday in the U.S.

St. Patrick

In the U.S., you can’t close down the schools on St. Patrick’s Day without showing ethnic bias. So Massachusetts’ Suffolk County, among other counties, closes the schools to commemorate March 17, 1776, the day the British troops cleared out of Boston in the American Revolutionary War.

For the record, they call it Evacuation Day.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. Laliv on March 16, 2013 at 3:35 am

    Very interesting, it’s always good to know whats behind the holiday….

  2. Tom G on March 23, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    So….what does a Druid trial of skill look like – Scaling Stonehenge. throwing large rocks, dancing….so much to learn in a life time – thanks for your help.

    • Bill Petro on March 23, 2016 at 3:38 pm


      Could be almost anything: being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. But seriously, until the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 requiring a trial by jury, most trials were “trials of skill.” Ah, the good old days.

      P.S. You can see a copy of the Magna Carta in the main viewing room of the British Library.


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