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Who Was Saint Patrick- Twelve Historically Proven Facts Around His Life

Who was Saint Patrick?

Of course, everybody has heard of Ireland’s beloved Patron Saint. But in reality, very little is known of the saint's life.

Early Christian Irish Church, as those built by Saint Patrick exhibited at the museum at Clonmacnoise monastery, County Offaly, Ireland.

The photo above shows a replica of an early Christian wooden church as those that were built by Patrick and other missionaries. This is an exhibit at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, Ireland.

There are many legends about Saint Pat or Saint Paddy. So, who was he really? On this page we are bringing you twelve historically prooven facts about the saint's life.

On this page we will talk you through the few facts about his life for which there is actual historical proof.

Further down the page you will find a box with links to other articles that cover St. Patrick's story in more detail.

Clonmacnoise monastery

One of Ireland's most stunning early Christian sites is the monastery at Clonmacnoise.

Facts About Who Saint Patrick Was

The only historical proof there is of Patrick's existence are two surviving documents written in Latin by Patrick himself.

These documents may have been written in relation to a court case or tribunal where Patrick had to defend his mission.

These documents written by Patricius do not contain any dates, so we are not sure exactly of his year of birth and death. He could have lived any time between the late fourth and early sixth century.

There is a piece of secondary evidence as to Patrick’s possible life time: the annals record 535 as the year of death for a disciple of Saint Patricks, one Maucteus, which would place Patricks life closer to that time.

What Do These Documents Tell Us About Who Saint Patrick Was?

  • The first document is called ‘Confession’ and contains Saint Patrick's life story. In it he answers the question of who was Saint Patrick was- in the way that he wanted the world to see and remember him. The document might have been written been written in defence of his missionary activity, for a tribunal or court case.
  • The other document is a letter in which Patrick excommunicates one Corticus on the grounds that he had sent soldiers to raid some of Patricks’ Christians of whom some were killed and others taken into slavery by Corticus. Patrick may have had to account for his actions in relation to Corticus in front of a tribunal of court hearing because he was not authorized to take such action. 
  • Saint Patrick, according to the evidence in these documents, was a self- appointed missionary, and not a bishop as the legends and saint's cult around him would have us believe.
  • In his ‘Confession’ Saint Patrick (Patricius) tells us that he had a father called Calpurnius, a grandfather called Potitus, and a great-grandfather by the name of Odissus. The fact that he spoke Latin and that his family had Latin names shows that he was of Roman-British origin. Saint Patrick says that his father was a ‘decurio’ which is a member of a town council and deacon of the church, while his grandfather was a priest.
  • Patrick gives the name of the nearest town to his birthplace as Bannaven Taeberniae, probably in the West of Britain, but the place has never been identified. His father, Saint Patrick or Patricius says, had a small estate (villula) with many servants. He says that at age 15, he was seized in a raid on the estate by an Irish band of marauders and brought to Ireland as a slave.
  • He says that many thousands of others (tot milia hominium) shared the same fate. He tells us he was enslaved in Ireland for six years where he herded sheep and that his Christian faith strengthened during this time.
  • After six years, he had a vision that told him he would return to his homeland. There is a confusing account of his adventures after that, but he says he did eventually return home, and lived there again for some years.
  • Then, he had another vision. In it, he was being visited by one Victoricus, a messenger who gave him letters from Ireland begging him to return there. His family strongly opposed this idea. So did his religious superiors. Yet, entirely of his own volition, Patricius came back to Ireland. Converting the pagan Irish to Christianity was his own initiative, a personal mission. He did not have any official backing from the Church, and neither was he ordained a bishop.
  • In the Confession, Patrick gives an impression of a man living very much on the edge between Christian and pagan worlds. He ventured into places that no Christian missionary had entered before him. In the document, Patrick claims that his episcopate was divinely inspired. The document was probably meant for other clergy, those that were suspicious of his role and his methods.

Sources and further reading on who Saint Patrick was:

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín: Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200, Longman 1995

Neil Hegarty: The Story of Ireland. In search of a new national memory. BBC books 2012

Rob Vance: Secrets of the Stones. Decoding Ireland’s lost past. Ashfield, Dublin,  2009

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