The Spirit of Saint Patrick: Freedom from slavery and forgiveness of injustice

Leprechauns, clovers and the luck of the Irish are synonymous with Saint Patrick’s Day, yet aside from a green beer marketing agenda, few people know why the holiday exists. Trinity Western University professor Craig Seaton, PhD, Director of the Irish Studies program, is an expert in Irish politics and history, and can shed light on the holiday’s origin. Seaton’s sphere of influence includes Irish reconciliation activists, the British High Commissioner to Canada, and Special Advisor to the Irish Prime Minister on Northern Ireland affairs—all who have guest lectured at TWU. In the following article, Seaton separates Saint Patrick’s Day fact from folklore and reminds readers that there’s a lot more to good ‘ol Patrick than wearing green.

Langley, B.C.—Though mentioning Ireland often conjures up images of violence and bitterness, Saint Patrick’s Day actually commemorates the life of a Christian who exemplified the message of forgiveness, reconciliation and service. Living in the late fourth and early fifth century, Patrick’s lifelong work had a strong social dimension. He was Ireland’s first public man to crusade against the institution of slavery, and within his lifetime, or shortly after, slavery came to a halt, and murder and inter tribal warfare also decreased due to his efforts. Legend has exaggerated the life story of Saint Patrick, but several aspects are certain.

Patrick was born in northern England to a well-to-do Christian family but was hostile to the faith of his parents throughout his youth. While still a young man, he was captured by invading Irish pirates and taken to Ireland to serve as a slave. His job was to watch over animals in the county’s lush green fields. In doing so, he gained an appreciation for God’s creation and his time in isolation led him to a deep Christian spirituality. Through this transformation, Patrick developed an appreciation for the culture and the people of Ireland, as well as the ability to speak their language.

Several years after his capture, he received direction in a dream to escape by traveling to the coast and gaining passage on a ship. He then became a priest, training either in Gaul or in England. After many years of service in England, he had another dream in which he heard a call to return to Ireland to serve the people who were his former captors. Patrick approached his religious superiors about this call and was ordained as a bishop appointed to Ireland. He traveled to the country with a small group in about 432 AD, and is thought to have died around 460 AD in Ireland.

Patrick’s work was characterized both by a zeal to spread the Christian faith throughout Ireland, and by an interest in meeting the day-to-day needs of the people. He met with the local leaders—informing them of the group’s interest in service and establishing a relationship with them—but it was among the Irish people that Patrick’s group live. His work included prayer for the sick, mediation of conflicts, and articulation of the Faith in public meetings. According to Irish legend, St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Christian faith. The three leaflets bound by a common stalk were a symbol of the church's Holy Trinity. It appears that Patrick’s mission planted about 700 churches, ordained as many as 1000 priests and as many as one third of Ireland’s approximately 150 tribes became substantially Christian.

Today, Northern Ireland—which is part of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland and Wales—suffers from violence and antipathy between the two groups usually labeled in the media as Protestant and Catholic. The reality is that the conflict is an ethnic one, concerned with differing political objectives, and stimulated by a long and hostile history in which each group has been injured by the other. In simple form, these political objectives relate to either continuing the political union with the United Kingdom, or rejoining the rest of the island, and becoming a part of the Republic of Ireland.

Is there hope for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland? It would seem that this might only happen if the “spirit of the work of St. Patrick” is renewed in the contemporary context of that emerald isle. It’s a hope that could bring a revived relevance to celebrating the holiday.

Craig Seaton PhD, is the Director of the Irish Studies Program at Trinity Western University. Trinity Western University, located in Langley, B.C., is a not-for-profit Christian liberal arts university enrolling over 3,500 students this year. With a broad based, liberal arts and sciences curriculum, the University offers undergraduate degrees in 38 major areas of study ranging from business, education and computer science to biology and nursing, and 13 other graduate degrees including counselling psychology, theology and administrative leadership.

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Irish blessing: May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow and may trouble avoid you wherever you go!

Last Updated: 2015-07-20
Author: Keela Keeping