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This Day in History: Saint Patrick's Death

March 21, 2014 - 9:00am
Saint Patrick's Day recognizes the death of Ireland's most beloved patron saint.

Whether seniors plan on taking Europe tours of Ireland or celebrating right in their hometowns, Saint Patrick's Day is an exciting and historically rich time of year. It has a muddled reputation in the U.S. as a day of excessive drinking and wild partying - streets across America become filled with people donning green attire, often drinking in public and cheering raucously as parades go by. But March 17 actually recognizes the death of the country's best-known patron saint, celebrating his life endeavors, the culture of the Irish and the introduction of Christianity to the nation. Learn a little more about this public holiday and the life of the beloved apostle of the Emerald Isle.

The Birth of a Saint
Saint Patrick was born at the end of the 4th century. Many believe that he was born in Britain in 387 AD and that his real name was Maewyn Succat. He was the son of wealthy Roman nobles Calpernius and Conchessa. His father, Calpernius, was a Christian, so Patrick was raised under the values of this religion. He was born with great privileges, and many of his relatives were also of high standing, such as his clergy member grandfather Pontius. But education was not an emphasis of his childhood, so Patrick grew up with little academic knowledge. His understanding of religion was not as strong as one would expect from a future patron saint.

Life as a Slave
At the young age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and delivered to the Emerald Isle kingdom of Dalriada, where he was sold as a slave. He worked for a Druid high priest, Milchu (Druidism was a Pagan sect that was the main religious influence in the country at the time). Patrick's main job was to tend to the sheep, and during his years of hard labor, he transformed into a devout Christian. He felt that God was testing his faith with this bout of slavery. Six years since beginning servitude as a shepherd, Patrick made his escape. Rumor has it that the future saint got the idea for his flight from slavery in a dream, and he talked a group of sailors into sneaking him aboard their ship. They all abandoned ship in France and walked some 200 miles (the trip took nearly a month) before he found his way back to his family in Britain.

The Making of a Cleric
After spending some time in Britain, Patrick chose to become a cleric. He took up residence in Auxerre, France, for a short time to study under missionary Saint Germain and make entry into the priesthood. After that, he moved to his father's homeland, Ireland, where he dedicated his life to spreading the word of Christianity. Around 430 AD, Patrick was officially consecrated Saint Patrick Bishop of the Irish, and he took on the mission of converting the pagans in the Emerald Isle to Christians.

At first, Saint Patrick was greeted with hostility. The locals were not eager to learn about this strange new religion, but he persisted and once the word caught on, it spread like wildfire. He continued his efforts with writings, sermons and religious services such as baptisms, convincing the pagans that they were worshipping a false idol. Saint Patrick quickly became a beloved member of the clergy, and he was allowed to appoint church officials, found monasteries and develop religious councils. He was also responsible for organizing the country into dioceses.

The Death of Saint Patrick
On March 17, 461 AD, Saint Patrick passed away in the small parish of Saul in Downpatrick, Ireland - the location where he built his first church (not to be confused with the famous St. Patrick's Cathedral, which is a stop on the Best of Ireland Tour). While little is known about the details of his death, it's generally believed that he died due to natural causes. His grave, which says only "Patric," can be found in Downpatrick's Down Cathedral. His passing was mourned by the entire country, and he received a magnificent service. Several large communities came together for his funeral, where his body was sheathed in a shroud and laid out on a cart that was pulled by beautiful white oxen. Legend has it that the day of his death was the only time that the sun didn't set - it stayed in the sky for 12 days straight.

Saint Patrick's Legendary Status
Saint Patrick is by far the most popular of all saints in Ireland, but he wasn't actually the first to introduce the country to Christianity. Others, such as Auxilius, Secundinus, Palladius and Ciaran the Elder attempted to convert the nation of pagans well before Patrick, but they were unsuccessful. He stands out above his predecessors as a man of great devotion and persistence and, despite never being officially canonized as a pope, he will forever be known as one of the driving forces behind the culture and religion of Ireland.