Though he’s the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick wasn’t Irish.
Instead Patrick was likely born in the southwest of England to a Roman-Britain family. At sixteen he was captured by raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland.
His master made him work as a shepherd, and so Patrick lived a life of loneliness and isolation as he wandered the green hills of Ireland.
That desert experience—for surely it was a desert of the heart despite the frequent rains he no doubt experienced—shaped and tempered the young man’s soul.
Cut off from his family, unable to speak the native language, Patrick turned more and more to prayer.
After six long years Patrick heard a voice telling him to leave his master and walk to the sea. At the shore he found a boat and persuaded its captain to allow him to join his crew. Patrick eventually returned to his family, becoming a priest and then a bishop in England.
And then Patrick did something that seems totally surprising: in the year 432 he went back to Ireland, back to the place where he had been enslaved and where he had suffered great loneliness and hardship. Once again it was an inner voice that directed his steps, a voice that called him to preach to the Irish.
Preach he did. Largely through the efforts of Patrick, an entire country was converted without violence or coercion.
Part of his success lay in his respect for the native holy traditions of the Celts. If a well or high hill was considered sacred to them, Patrick simply Christianized it. Thus today you can still find countless holy sites in Ireland that blend Christianity with much older traditions, places like Croagh Patrick, a mountain once sacred to the Celtic god Lugh and later a place of Christian pilgrimage.
Like the early apostles, Patrick traveled with few material possessions, relying on the hospitality of those he met. For thirty years he wandered among the native tribes of Ireland, telling everyone he met the story of Jesus. At his death in 461, the Irish mourned him as one of their own.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.