History Expert Debunks Blarney of St. Patrick’s Biography

Patrick's life is difficult to trace, yet the patron saint of Ireland did exist.

Think St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland?

How about thinking he’s even Irish?

Some people do, said John Howe, a professor the Department of History at Texas Tech University. But that’s hardly surprising when one considers the bigger-than-life legends this patron saint of Ireland produces.

"I guess it depends on who you ask," Howe said. "If you ask an Englishman, he might say that St. Patrick turned the snakes into Irishmen. When it comes to St. Patrick, it’s not always easy to separate what is historical and what are stories."

Despite being one of the most widely known saints in Christianity, St. Patrick’s true life remains somewhat shrouded in mystery and washed over in exaggerated storytelling.

From taking credit for being the first Christian missionary in Ireland to using the shamrock as symbolism for the bible, there’s certainly no dearth of tales About St. Patrick, Howe says. That can mean trouble when it comes to finding the truth about the real historical figure.

Only two writings done by the real St. Patrick exist, he says. The Confessions{} and a letter to {} serve as guides historians use to develop biographical material about St. Patrick.

"These are the only two genuine writings attributed to Patrick," Howe says. "Most historians take these two pieces of writing to be genuine. He was kidnapped by pirates and hauled away from his homeland, which appears to be Wales. He spent six years in Ireland before escaping back to Britain."

Somewhere between Ireland and returning home to Britain, many historians believe Patrick stopped over in France, Howe says. When organizing Christianity in Ireland, structure such as the system of bishops of the Roman Catholic Church on Europe’s continent are present in Patrick’s organization of Christianity in Ireland.

During the fifth century, Howe says, the Western half of the Roman Empire was collapsing and society on Europe’s continent was in turmoil. However, Ireland had never been under Roman Control. This probably helped St. Patrick spread Christianity across the Emerald Isle because he didn’t have to compete with an already-established Roman-inspired religion.

CONTACT: John Howe, professor of history, Department of History, Texas Tech University, (806) 742-1004 ext. 233, john.howe@ttu.edu