Who was St. Patrick, and why is he honored – and what’s the deal with the snakes?

For Catholics, Episcopalians and some Lutherans, March 17 is the Feast Day of St. Patrick. For the rest of us, it’s St. Patrick’s Day. But who was Patrick? Why should this fifth-century bishop be remembered?

Q: Was St. Patrick a real guy?

A: Yes, Patrick was real, but not much is known of his life. He was born in the late 300s in Roman-ruled Britain, so he was not “really” Irish – like the vast majority of people who celebrate his day. In his “Confessio,” one of only two surviving documents attributed to him, Patrick wrote that as a child he was not devout, although his father was a Christian deacon. At age 16, Patrick was captured by Irish marauders, carried across the Irish Sea and enslaved. Patrick spent six years alone in the wilderness tending his master’s sheep, praying constantly. “It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was,” he wrote. He began to have visions and hear voices that told him: “Look, your ship is ready.” So Patrick fled and walked 200 miles to the coast. It’s a pretty safe bet he would have loved a beer, green or otherwise, as he stepped into a boat bound for England.

Q: If Patrick was really British, how did he become so closely associated with the Irish?

A: Back in England, Patrick had a dream in which he heard the voice of the Irish he left behind say, “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.” Patrick took this as a sign and set out for a monastery in Gaul – that’s France today – where he began his religious education. He became a priest, a deacon and finally a bishop and returned to Ireland by his mid-40s. He created convents, monasteries and bishoprics all over Ireland, confronted tyrannical kings and converted hundreds of thousands of people. He was so popular that when he died on March 17 the late 400s – scholars aren’t sure exactly when – his followers waged a war for custody of his body.

Q: But what about the snakes? And the shamrock?

A: Patrick did not chase the snakes out of Ireland. Scientists say Ireland, an island, has never had snakes. But the story is probably symbolic of Patrick’s driving out Druids and other forms of Irish paganism. And there’s no way of knowing whether Patrick ever picked up a three-leafed shamrock and used it to explain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Q: If he didn’t do those things, what did he do that would make him worthy of getting a whole day dedicated to him?

A: Short answer: Patrick was a maverick, an iconoclast, a trailblazer. And though he was high born, he never forgot the naked shepherd boy, cold and hungry and huddling on an Irish hillside. He was the first church father to speak out against the abuse of women, especially slaves. And Patrick was the first missionary to people considered barbarians. In the words of Thomas Cahill, “The step he took was in its way as bold as Columbus’, and a thousand times more humane.”