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True history and legend are intertwined when it comes to St. Patrick.
It is known that he was born in Scotland and was kidnapped and sold in
Ireland as a slave. He became fluent in the Irish language before making his
escape to the continent. Eventually he was ordained as a deacon, then priest
and finally as a bishop.
Pope Celestine then sent him back to Ireland to preach the gospel.
Evidently he was a great traveler, especially in Celtic countries, as
innumerable places in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and
Ireland are named after him.
Here it is where actual history and legend become difficult to separate.
Patrick is most known the world over for having driven the snakes
from Ireland. Different tales tell of his standing upon a hill, using a
wooden staff to drive the serpents into the sea, banishing them forever
from the shores of Ireland. One legend says that one old serpent
resisted, but the saint overcame it by cunning. He is said to have made
a box and invited the reptile to enter. The snake insisted the box was
too small and the discussion became very heated.
Finally the snake entered the box to prove he was right, whereupon St. Patrick
slammed the lid and cast the box into the sea. While it is true there are
no snakes in Ireland, chances are that there never have been since the
time the island was separated from the rest of the continent at the end
of the ice age. As in many old pagan religions serpent symbols were
common, and possibly even worshipped. Driving the snakes from
Ireland was probably symbolic of putting an end to that pagan practice.
While not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, it was Patrick who
encountered the Druids at Tara and abolished their pagan rites. He
converted the warrior chiefs and princes, baptizing them and
thousands of their subjects in the Holy Wells which still bear that name.
According to tradition St. Patrick died in A.D. 493 (I've seen 460 and 461 A.D. also) and
was buried in the same grave as St. Bridget and St. Columba, at Downpatrick,
County Down. The jawbone of St. Patrick was preserved in a silver
shrine and was often requested in times of childbirth, epileptic fits and
as a preservative against the evil eye. Another legend says St. Patrick
ended his days at Glastonbury and was buried there.
The Chapel of St. Patrick still exists as part of Galstonbury Abbey.
There is evidence of an Irish pilgrimage to his tomb during the reign
of the Saxon King Ine in A.D. 688, when a group of pilgrims headed by
St. Indractus were murdered.
The great anxiety displayed in the middle ages to
possess the bodies, or at least the relics of saints, accounts for the
many discrepant traditions as to the burial places of St. Patrick and others.
The Shamrock, at one time called the "Seamroy",
symbolizes the cross and blessed trinity. Before the Christian era
it was a sacred plant of the Druids of Ireland because its leaves
formed a triad.
The well known legend of the Shamrock connects it
definitely to St. Patrick and his teaching. Preaching in the open air
on the doctrine of the trinity, he is said to have illustrated the
existence of the Three in One by plucking a shamrock from the grass growing at
his feet and showing it to his congregation. The legend of the
shamrock is also connected with that of the banishment of the serpent
tribe from Ireland by a tradition that snakes are never seen on
trefoil and that it is a remedy against the stings of snakes and scorpions.
The trefoil in Arabia is called shamrakh and was sacred in Iran as an
emblem of the Persian triads. The trefoil, as noted
above, being a sacred plant among the Druids, and three being a
mystical number in the Celtic religion as well as all others, it is probable
that St. Patrick must have been aware of the significance of his illustration.
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