Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Patrick, The Apostle of Ireland

detail of stained glass window of Saint Patrick, date and artist unknown; Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Knoxville, Tennessee; photographed on 16 September 2016 by Nheyob; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 465.

All praise to Saint Patrick, who brought to our mountains
The gift of God’s faith, the sweet light of His love;
All praise to the shepherd who showed us the fountains
That rise in the heart of the Saviour above!

There is not a Saint in the bright courts of heaven
More faithful than he to the land of his choice;
Oh! well may the nation to whom he was given
In the feast of their sire and Apostle rejoice.

In glory above,
True to his love,
He keeps the false faith from his children away –
The dark, false faith
Far worse than death.

– Father Faber

Saint Patrick, whose noble name is revered in many lands, was born in the year 387, at Boulogne, in the north of France. His father, Calphurnius, and his mother, Conchessa, a niece of Saint Martin, Archbishop of Tours, were persons of rank and virtue. Conchessa, it is said, was noted for elegance of manners and beauty of person.

The Saint’s childhood was marked by many miraculous incidents. We can give but one. While running about in a field one of his sisters slipped and fell, striking her forehead against a sharp stone. The girl was so stunned and severely wounded that she seemed to be lifeless. Friends anxiously gathered around, and her little brother was soon on the scene. Patrick’s surgery was wonderful. He made the sign of the cross on her blood-stained countenance, and instantly the wound was healed. But the scar remained as a sign to mark the spot where faith and holiness had gained a victory.

The boy grew up in the bright way of virtue. His merits far surpassed his years. In the words of the venerable monk Jocelin, he went “forward in the slippery paths of youth and held his feet from falling. The garment that nature had woven for him – unknown to stain – he preserved whole, living a virgin in mind and body. On the arrival of the fit time he was sent from his parents to be instructed in sacred learning.

“He applied his mind to the study of letters, but chiefly to psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, retaining them in his memory and continually singing them to the Lord; so that even from the flower of his first youth he was daily wont to sing devoutly unto God the whole psalter, and from his most pure heart to pour forth many prayers.”

But the day of trial was at hand. The future Apostle of Erin was to be tested as gold in a furnace. When he had reached the age of sixteen, the famous King Niall of the Nine Hostages, monarch of Ireland, swept along the coast of France on a marauding expedition, and captured the good youth with many of his countrymen. Patrick was carried to the shores of Ireland, and sold as a slave to Milcho, a chief ruling over a portion of the county of Antrim

The young captive was chiefly employed in tending herds of sheep and swine on the mountains. It was a period of sore adversity. But his soul rose above such lowly occupations and held unbroken communion with Heaven. Thus, in the heat of summer and the biting blasts of winter, on the steep sides of Slieb-mish or on the lone hill-tops of Antrim, he recalled the sacred presence of God; and made it a practice to say “a hundred prayers by day and nearly as many more by night.”

After Patrick had served Milcho for six years, he was one night favored with a vision, as he relates in his “Confessions.” “You fast well’, said the voice. “You will soon go to your own country. The ship is ready.”

To Patrick this was welcome news.

“Then girding close his mantle, and grasping fast his wand.
He sought the open ocean through the by-ways of the land.”

A ship, indeed, was about to sail, but he had much difficulty in obtaining a place on board. After a passage of three days he landed at Treguier, in Brittany. He was still, however, a long distance from his native place, and in making the journey he suffered much from hunger and fatigue. But he bravely triumphed over all obstacles – including the devil, who one night fell upon him like a huge stone – and reached home at the age of twenty-two, about the year 410.

The Saint now formed the resolution of devoting himself wholly to the service of God, and retired to the celebrated monastery of Saint Martin at Tours, where he spent four years in study and prayer. After this he returned home for a time.

It was not long, however, before Patrick’s future mission was shadowed forth by a vision. One night a dignified personage appeared to him, bearing many letters from Ireland. He handed the Saint one, on which was written: “This is the voice of the Irish.” While in the act of reading, he says, “I seemed to hear the voices of people from the wood of Fochut, near the western sea, crying out with one accord: ‘Holy youth, we implore thee to come and walk still amongst us.'” Patrick’s noble heart was touched. He “awoke, and could read no longer.”

Saint and student that he was, Patrick now began to prepare himself with redoubled vigor for the vast work that lay before him. He placed himself under the guidance of Saint Germain, the illustrious Bishop of Auxerre, who sent him to a famous seminary on the isle of Lerins, where he spent nine years in study and retirement.* It was here that he received the celebrated crosier called the Staff of Jesus, which he afterwards carried with him in his apostolic visitations through Ireland.

The learned and saintly priest returned to his patron, Saint Germain, and passed several years in the work of the holy ministry and in combating heresy. In 430, however, Saint Germain sent him to Rome with letters of introduction to the Holy Father, warmly recommending him as one in every way qualified for the great mission of converting the Irish people. A residence of six years in the country, a perfect knowledge of its language, customs, and inhabitants, and a life of study, innocence, and sanctity – these were the high testimonials which Patrick bore from the Bishop of Auxerre to the Vicar of Christ.

Pope Celestine I. gave the Saint a kindly reception, and issued bulls authorizing his consecration as bishop. Receiving the apostolic benediction, he returned to France, and was there raised to the episcopal dignity. The invitation, “Come, holy youth, and walk amongst us,” rang ever in his ears. It armed his soul with energy. The new Bishop bade adieu to home and kindred, and set out for the labor of his life with twenty well-tried companions.

It is supposed that Saint Patrick first landed on the coast of the county of Wicklow; but the hostility of the natives obliged him to re-embark, and he sailed northward toward the scenes of his former captivity. He finally cast anchor on the historic coast of Down, and, with all his companions, landed in the year 432 at the mouth of the little river Slaney, which falls into Strangford Lough. The apostolic band had advanced but a short distance into the country when they encountered the servants of Dicho, lord of that district. Taking the Saint and his followers for pirates, they grew alarmed and fled at their approach.

The news soon reached the ears of Dicho, who hastily armed his retainers and sallied forth to meet the supposed enemy. He was not long in learning, however, that the war which Patrick was about to wage was not one of swords and bucklers, but of peace and charity; and with true kindness and Irish hospitality, Dicho invited the apostle to his residence.

It was a golden opportunity. Nor did the Saint permit it to escape. He announced the bright truths of the Gospel. Dicho and all his household heard, believed, and were baptized. The Bishop celebrated Holy Mass in a barn, and the church which the good, kind-hearted chief erected on its site was afterwards known as Sabhalf – Patrick, or Patrick’s Barn. Thus Dicho was Patrick’s first convert in Ireland. The glorious work was commenced. In that beautiful isle the cross was destined to triumph over paganism, and ever more to reign on its ruins.

The great missionary next set out to visit his old master, hoping to gain him over to the faith. But when Milcho heard of the Saint’s approach his hard heathen soul revolted at the idea that he might have to submit in some way to the doctrine of his former slave. The old man’s rage and grief, it is related, induced him to commit suicide. “This son of perdition,” says the ancient monk, Jocelin, “gathered together all his house-hold effects and cast them into the fire, and then, throwing himself on the flames, he made himself a holocaust for the infernal demons.”

At this time Laegrius, supreme monarch of Ireland, was holding an assembly or congress of all the Druids, bards, and princes of the nation in his palace at Tara. Saint Patrick resolved to be present at this great meeting of chiefs and wise men, and to celebrate in its midst the festival of Easter, which was now approaching.

He resolved with one bold stroke to paralyze the efforts of the Druids by sapping the very centre of their power. He resolved to plant the glorious standard of the Cross on the far-famed Hill of Tara, the citadel of Ireland. Nor did he fail.

It was the eve of Easter when the Saint arrived at Slane and pitched his tent. At the same hour the regal halls of Tara were filled with all the princes of the land. It was the feast of Baal-tien, or sun-worship; and the laws of the Druids ordained that no fire should be lighted in the whole country till the great fire flamed upon the royal Hill of Tara. It so happened, however, that Patrick’s Paschal light was seen from the king’s palace. The Druids were alarmed. The monarch and his courtiers were indignant. The Apostle was ordered to appear before the assembly on the day following.

“Gleamed the sun-ray, soft and yellow.
On the gentle plains of Meath;
Spring’s low breezes, fresh and mellow,
Through the woods scarce seemed to breathe:
And on Tara, proud and olden,
Circled round with radiance fair,
Decked in splendor bright and golden.
Sat the court of Laeghaire –

“Chieftains with the collar of glory
And the long hair flowing free;
Priest and Brehon, bent and hoary,
Soft-tongued Bard and Seanachie.
Silence filled the sunny ether,
Eager light in every eye,
As in banded rank together
Stranger forms approacheth nigh.

“Tall and stately – white beards flowing
In bright streaks adown the breast –
Cheeks with summer beauty glowing,
Eyes of thoughtful, holy rest;
And in front their saintly leader,
Patrick, walked with cross in hand.
Which from Arran to Ben Edar
Soon rose high above the land.”

The Apostle preached before Laegrius and the great ones of Tara. “The sun which you behold,” said he, “rises and sets by God’s decree for our benefit; but it shall never reign, nor shall its splendor be immortal. All who adore it shall miserably perish. But we adore the true Sun – Jesus Christ.”

The chief bard, Dubtach, was the first of the converts of Tara; and from that hour he consecrated his genius to Christianity. A few days after Conall, the king’s brother, embraced the faith. Thus Irish genius and royalty began to bow to the Cross. The heathen Laegrius blindly persevered in his errors, but feared openly to oppose the holy Apostle. The scene at Tara recalls to mind the preaching of Saint Paul before the assembled wisdom and learning of the Areopagus.

A court magician named Lochu attempted to oppose Saint Patrick. He mocked Christ, and declared that he himself was a god. The people were dazzled with his infamous tricks. The hardy impostor even promised to raise himself from the earth and ascend to the clouds, and before king and people he one day made the attempt. The Saint was present. “O Almighty God!” he prayed, “destroy this blasphemer of thy holy Name, nor let him hinder those who now return, or may hereafter return, to Thee.” The words were scarcely uttered when Lochu took a downward flight. The wretch fell at the Apostle’s feet, dashed his head against a stone, and immediately expired.

After a short stay at various points, Saint Patrick penetrated into Connaught. In the county of Cavan he overthrew the great idol called Crom-Cruach, and on its ruins erected a stately church. It was about this time that he baptized the two daughters of King Laegrius. The fair royal converts soon after received the veil at his hands.

The Apostle held his first synod in 435, near Elphin, during which he consecrated several bishops for the growing Church of Ireland. It was in the Lent of this year that he returned to Cruach-Patrick, a mountain in Mayo, and spent forty days, praying, fasting, and beseeching heaven to make beautiful Erin an isle of saints.

The most glorious success everywhere attended his footsteps. The heavenly seed of truth fell on good ground, and produced more than a hundred-fold. Nor did miracles fail, from time to time, to come to the aid of the newly-announced doctrine. He reached Tirawley at a time when the seven sons of Amalgaidh were disputing over the succession to the crown of their deceased father. Great multitudes had gathered together. The Saint made his voice heard. An enraged magician rushed at him with murderous intentions; but, in the presence of all, a sudden flash of lightning smote the would-be assassin. It was a day of victory for the true faith. The seven quarrelling princes and over twelve thousand persons were converted on the spot, and baptized in the well of Aen-Adharrac.

Saint Patrick, after spending seven years in Connaught, directed his course northward. He entered Ulster once more in 442. His progress through the historic counties of Donegal, Derry, Antrim, and others was one continued triumph. Princes and people alike heard, believed, and embraced the truth. Countless churches sprang up, new sees were established, and the Catholic religion placed on a deep, lasting foundation. The Apostle of Erin was a glorious architect, who did the work of God with matchless thoroughnees.

“From faith’s bright camp the demon fled,
The path to heaven was cleared;
Religion raised her beauteous head –
An Isle of Saints appeared.

The Apostle next journeyed into Leinster, and founded many churches. It is related that on reaching a hill distant about a mile from a little village, situated on the borders of a beautiful bay, he stopped, swept his eye over the calm waters and the picturesque landscape, and, raising his hand, gave the scene his benediction, saying: “This village, now so small, shall one day be renowned. It shall grow in wealth and dignity until it shall become the capital of a kingdom.” It is now the city of Dublin.

In 445 Saint Patrick passed to Munster, and proceeded at once to “Cashel of the Kings.” Angus, who was then the royal ruler of Munster, went forth to meet the herald of the Gospel, and warmly invited him to his palace. This prince had already been instructed in the faith, and the day after the Bishop’s arrival was fixed for his baptism.

During the administration of the sacrament a very touching incident occurred. The Saint planted his crosier – the Staff of Jesus – firmly in the ground by his side; but before reaching it the sharp iron point pierced the king’s foot and pinned it to the earth. The brave convert never winced, though the pain must have been intense. The holy ceremony was over before Saint Patrick perceived the streams of blood, and he immediately expressed his deep sorrow for causing such a painful accident. The noble Angus, however, quietly replied that he had thought it was a part of the ceremony, adding that he was ready and willing to endure much more for the glory of Jesus Christ.

Thus, in less than a quarter of a century from the day Saint Patrick set his foot on her emerald shores, the greater part of Ireland became Catholic. The darkness of ancient superstition everywhere faded away before the celestial light of the Gospel. The groves of the pagan Druids were forsaken, and the holy sacrifice of the Mass was offered up on thousands of altars.

The annals of Christianity record not a greater triumph. It is the sublime spectacle of the people of an entire nation casting away their heathen prejudices and the cherished traditions of ages, and gladly embracing the faith of Jesus Christ, announced to them by a man who had once been a miserable captive on their hills, but now an Apostle sent to them with the plenitude of power by Pope Celestine.

Nor is it less remarkable that this glorious revolution – this happy conversion of peerless Ireland – was accomplished without the shedding of one drop of martyr blood, except, perhaps, at the baptism of Angus, when.

“The royal foot transpierced, the gushing blood
Enriched the pavement with a noble flood.”

While Saint Patrick was meditating as to the site he should select for his metropolitan see, he was admonished by an angel that the destined spot was Armagh. Here he fixed the seat of his primacy in the year 445. A cathedral and many other religious edifices soon crowned the Hill of Macha. The whole district was the gift of King Daire, a grandson of Eoghan.

The Apostle, having thus established the Church of Ireland on a solid basis, set out for Rome to give an account of his labors to Pope Saint Leo the Great. The Holy Father confirmed whatever Saint Patrick had done, appointed him his Legate, and gave him many precious gifts on his departure.

The ancient biographers give many a curious legend and quaint anecdote in relation to our great Saint. Eoghan (Eugene or Owen) was one of the sons of King Niall of the Nine Hostages. He was a bold and powerful prince, who acquired the country called after him “Tir-Owen” (Tyrone), or Owen’s country. His residence was at the famous palace of Aileach in Innishowen.

When Eoghan heard of Saint Patrick’s arrival in his dominions, he went forth to meet him, received him with every mark of honor, listened with humility to the word of God, and was baptized with all his household. But he had a temporal blessing to ask of the Apostle.

“I am not good-looking,” said the converted but ambitious Eoghan; “my brother precedes me on account of my ugliness.”

“What form do you desire?” asked the Saint.

“The form of Rioc, the young man who is carrying your satchel,” answered the prince.

Saint Patrick covered them over with the same garment, the hands of each being clasped round the other. They slept thus, and afterwards awoke in the same form, with the exception of the tonsure.

“I don’t like my height,” said Eoghan.

“What size do you desire to be?” enquired the kind-hearted Saint.

The prince seized his sword and reached upwards.

“I should like to be this height,” he said; and all at once he grew to the wished-for stature. The Apostle afterwards blessed Eoghan and his sons.

“Which of your sons is dearest to you?” asked Saint Patrick.

“Muiredhach,” said the prince.

“Sovereignity from him for ever,” said the Saint.

“And next to him?” enquired Saint Patrick.

“Fergus,” he answered.

“Dignity from him,” said the Saint.

“And after him?” demanded the Apostle.

“Eocha Bindech,” said Eoghan.

“Warriors from him,” said the Saint.

“And after him?”

“They are all alike to me,” replied Eoghan.

“They shall have united love,” said the man of God.

“My blessing,” he prayed, “on the descendants of Eoghan till the day of judgment. . . . The race of Eoghan, son of Niall, bless, O fair Bridget! Provided they do good, government shall be from them for ever. The blessing of us both upon Eoghan, son of Niall, and on all who may be born of him, if they are obedient.”

Saint Patrick, it is told, had a favorite goat which was so well trained that it proved very serviceable. But a sly thief fixed his evil eye on the animal, stole it, and made a feast on the remains. The loss of the goat called for investigation; and the thief, on being accused, protested with an oath that he was innocent. But little did he dream of his accuser. “The goat which was swallowed in his stomach,” says Jocelin, “bleated loudly forth, and proclaimed the merit of Saint Patrick.” Nor did the miracle stop here; for “at the sentence of the Saint all the man’s posterity were marked with the beard of a goat.”

About ten years before his death the venerable Apostle resigned the primacy as Archbishop of Armagh to his loved disciple, Saint Benignus, and retired to Saul, his favorite retreat, and the scene of his early triumphs. Here it was that he converted Dicho and built his first church. Here also he wrote his “Confessions,” and drew up rules for the government of the Irish Church. When he felt that the sun of dear life was about to set on earth, that it might rise in brighter skies, and shine for ever, he asked to be taken to Armagh. He wished to breathe his last in the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. But on the way an angel appeared to the blessed man, and told him to return – that he was to die at Saul. He returned, and at the age of seventy- eight, on the 17th of March, in the year 465, Saint Patrick passed from this world.

He was buried at Downpatrick, in the county of Down; and in the same tomb were subsequently laid the sacred remains of Saint Bridget and Saint Columbkille. The shrine of the Apostle of Ireland was visited by Cambrensis in 1174, and upon it he found the following Latin inscription:

Hi ires Duno tumulo tumulantur in uno,
Brigida Patricius, atque Columba Pius.

In Down three Saints one grave do fill
Bridget, Patrick, and Columbkille.

This illustrious Saint was a man of work, and prayer, and penance. To his last breath he ceased not to teach his people. His daily devotions were countless. It is related that he made the sign of the cross many hundred times a day. He slept little, and a stone was his pillow. He traveled on foot in his visitations till the weight of years made a carriage necessary. He accepted no gifts for himself, ever deeming it more blessed to give than to receive.

His simple dress was a white monastic habit, made from the wool of the sheep; and his bearing, speech, and countenance were but the outward expression of his kind heart and great, beautiful soul. Force and simplicity marked his discourses. He was a perfect master of the Irish, French, and Latin languages, and had some knowledge of Greek.

He consecrated three hundred and fifty bishops, erected seven hundred churches, ordained five thousand priests, and raised thirty-three persons from the dead. But it is in vain that we try to sum up the labors of the Saint by the rules of arithmetic. The wear and tear of over fourteen hundred years have tested the work of Saint Patrick; and in spite of all the changes of time, and the malice of men and demons, it stands to-day greater than ever – a monument to his immortal glory.

“It should ever be remembered,” said the Nun of Kenmare, “that the exterior work of a saint is but a small portion of his real life, and that the success of this work is connected by a delicate chain of providences, of which the world sees little and thinks less, with this interior life. Men are ever searching for the beautiful in nature and art, but they rarely search for the beauty of a human soul, yet this beauty is immortal. Something of its radiance appears at times even to mortal sight, and men are overawed by the majesty or won by the sweetness of the saints of God; but it needs saintliness to discern sanctity, even as it needs cultivated taste to appreciate art. A thing of beauty is only a joy to those who can discern its beauty; and it needs the sight of angels to see and appreciate perfectly all the beauty of a saintly soul. Thus, while some men scorn as idle tales the miracles recorded in the Lives of the Saints, and others give scant and condescending praise to their exterior works of charity, their real life, their true nobility is hidden and unknown God and the angels only know the trials and the triumphs of holy human souls.”

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Patrick, The Apostle of Ireland”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 24 September 2018. Web. 21 November 2018. <>