Today is Saint Patrick’s Day, and marks the death in 461 of one of the great patron saints of Ireland, credited with converting much of Ireland to Christianity. We mark this day with parades and public drinking, as St. Patrick’s Day breaks up the abstemious Lenten season with sanctioned festivities, and marks the progress towards Easter and the end of fasting. The figure of St. Patrick—or Patricius, as the Pope named him–embodies the virtues of Piety, Zeal, Forgiveness, Fortitude, Diligence, Compassion, and Perseverance or Steadfastness, among others. Tomorrow St. Patrick may also serve as a rueful reminder of Temperance, but today we might concentrate on his heroic Perseverance as a quality that has impressed people the world over for more than fifteen hundred years.
Patrick’s life began in good circumstances. He was born in Scotland or Wales around the year 385 to parents who were Roman Christians, and his father enjoyed some status as a church deacon. Although Patrick claims not to have cared much about religion as a youth, when he was captured at 16 by raiding pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave, he turned to Christianity. After six or seven years of tending sheep, he heard a voice telling him to escape, seized his chance, and ran away, convincing a ship’s crew to take him back home. When they landed, nearly starving, he impressed them by promising they would be rewarded if they put their faith in God, and they subsequently encountered a herd of wild pigs, making believers out of his companions. Patrick returned to his family, went to France to become a monk, and eventually went back to Ireland, where he became Archbishop of Armagh.
Although he held high office, Patrick did not have an easy time in Ireland. He seems to have refused the gifts of kings, which would have left him unprotected by systems of fosterage and exchange. He lived mostly in poverty, and on at least one occasion was beaten and robbed. He made it his mission to convert as many people as possible to Christianity, which cannot always have been met with happiness by the converted, and it is said that he converted thousands. He is credited with inventing the Celtic cross and with using the shamrock’s three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity, which is why the shamrock is associated with St. Patrick’s Day. These last are probably myths, but they are part of the lore that binds him to Ireland and Irish nationalism.
Because of the hardships of his life and the choices he made rejecting the life of status and comfort available to him as the Roman son of a deacon, Saint Patrick is credited with great faith, and great perseverance. In his Confessio he writes “…[S]o that I might come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel and endure insults from unbelievers; that I might hear scandal of my travels, and endure man persecutions to the extent of prison; and so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others, and if I should be worthy, I am ready to give even my life without hesitation; and most willingly for His name. And I choose to devote it to him even unto death, if God grant it to me.” His steadfastness and certainty makes it apparent why he eventually became associated with Irish heroism and Irish nationalism.
Perhaps the strangest deed he is known for is the feat of driving the snakes out of Ireland. Since there were no snakes in Ireland at the time, people interpret this story as a figurative description of Patrick’s missionary work, where snakes symbolize Satan, or evil, or Druids. He is sometimes blamed for the deaths of scores of Druids, though other historians argue that Christianity already had a strong foothold in Ireland even before Patrick arrived. Some argue that his heroic act of snake expulsion signals Patrick’s association with older festivals on March 17th such as the Roman Feast of Liberalia and the hero feast of Cú Chulainne (see https://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/liberalia-hero-feast-of-cu-chulainn/)
Liberalia is associated with the god Dionysius, or Bacchus in Greek, from which we get the term bacchanalia. This—along with relief at the temporary cessation of the deprivations associated with Lent—might explain the celebration of drinking that characterizes St. Patrick’s Day. The great Irish hero Cú Chulainne is associated with Dionysius, and was also the traditional protector of the area around Armagh, where Patrick was Archbishop. Patrick is also associated with the heroism of Cú Chulainne in the story of Patrick’s conversion of King Lóegaire to Christianity, where Cú Chulainne appears in Lóegaire’s chariot to warn him about the torments of hell.
Besides his fortitude, admirers of St. Patrick also value his institutional and cultural legacy. Indeed, his conversion of Ireland to Christianity has been seen by many as crucial to the preservation of European culture during the Dark Ages, though this view is controversial. Thomas Cahill, who argues in How the Irish Saved Civilization that after the fall of Rome, maintains that the preservation of so many manuscripts and traditions by the clergy Patrick trained kept the West from falling into barbarity. St. Patrick is thus associated with learning, and also seen as the patron saint of engineers and of arts and crafts, in part because he is credited with introducing the use of lime mortar and ceramic work in Ireland. Teaching the Irish to build arches of lime mortar instead of dry masonry allowed them to construct churches, and the cultivation of associated clay and ceramic work led to Irish arts and crafts.
Christians view Patrick’s unshakeable faith as an infused virtue, but Patrick’s extraordinary acquired virtue of perseverance also explains why he is such a beloved figure to the Irish. In an earlier post, Candace Vogler explains that in Western philosophy and religious studies, an “acquired virtue” is a character strength that you develop by doing the things you are supposed to do, whereas an “infused virtue” is a strength that is given to you (link). Patrick was a man of great faith, to be sure, but he was also a man of amazing stick-to-itiveness. Like Cú Chulainne and Hercules, St. Patrick’s steadfastness allowed him to achieve heroic things in the face of hopelessness and great adversity, and explains why he became the patron saint of Ireland and the inspiration to the Irish diaspora around the world. So today, if you raise a glass in celebration, also give a thought to what can be done in the world with perseverance, and steadfastness, and the virtue of holding true to a purpose greater than yourself.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.