St. Patrick and His Cross

Who was St. Patrick? And why was the red saltire attributed to him?

St. Patrick

St. Patrick's Cross

Patrick was born in Kilpatrick, Scotland (other accounts say somewhere in England or Wales), in the year 387 (or 371 by other accounts). He lived a remarkably long life; some sources say he was 73 when he died, others say he was 106, and yet other accounts age him to 122!

(We must remember these were the days when few things, such as births and deaths, were actually recorded in writing, and not many records have survived. But the consensus is that he lived to a ripe old age. Interestingly, there were no McDonald's hamburgers in those days. Coincidence?)

Patrick as a youth

Patrick's father, Calphurnius, was from a high ranking Roman family. With this relatively wealthy background, Patrick must have been fit and healthy as a young man, which may have been the reason for Patrick's kidnapping by an Irish gang who sold him as a slave to a Pagan chieftain in Dalriada (now County Antrim), the north-eastern coast of Ireland.

Patrick at prayer

For six years, he tended livestock for his owner, which gave him plenty of time to pray and exercise the Christian faith his parents had nurtured in him. He grew strong spiritually, mastered the local Celtic language, and also became familiar with Druidism from which later he would convert the people of Ireland.

Patrick as a monk

After six years, he sneaked away and managed to board a ship back to Britain.

There, rather than return to his home, he became a student of the bishop St. Germain for some years and joined in his missionary work. Eventually he became a priest and Pope Celestine gave him the task of converting the Irish to Christianity.

In fact another missionary called Palladius had already tried that, but was beaten back by the chieftain of Wicklow. Bishop Germain told the Pope that Patrick was the man for the job. Patrick was given a new name by the Pope: Patercius, meaning 'father of his people'.

Patrick as a missionary

Patrick as a missionary

By the time he reached Ireland, Patrick was already about 45 years old. At that age it must have been physically daunting to take on the aggressive Druids. So he adopted a more gentle approach to his mission.

First, he went back to the area where he had been a slave. There, he paid a ransom for his own release and forgave his former master for the cruelty he had endured.

This must have been good gossip material at the local markets. Patrick's meek reputation soon spread, so that where ever he journeyed, people knew this was a gentle man of God and he was respected.

Not by everyone, of course. Those in power were afraid that this new religion would weaken their authority and wealth.

One such chieftain was called Dichu. On a journey to Slemish, Patrick bumped into Dichu, who saw the saint as a puny man and easy to overcome. Dichu drew his sword to slay Patrick, but his arm froze in mid-air! He could not move.

Dichu realised he was up against some pretty awesome power and begged for Patrick's forgiveness. The paralysis softened and Dichu was converted. Later Dichu built a monastery on his land.

That is one of several early miracles attributed to Patrick, and he didn't stop there. All his life, this missionary went around spreading the word of God.

It wasn't always easy; he had to endure several arrests and negotiate with the local authorities, but he never tired. When he wasn't preaching, he was praying. One by one, he converted the Pagan leaders to Christianity, and the people followed.

One day in 433, Dichu told Patrick that the chieftains of Erin had been summoned to celebrate a special Pagan Easter Sunday feast at Tara by Leoghaire, the Supreme Monarch of Ireland. The aim was to muster strength against this new and threatening religion of Christianity. Patrick saw this as a golden opportunity to preach to so many chieftains, and even the king himself. At once, Patrick set off to meet the challenge.

Patrick as a victor

Patrick gave such an impression that from that day forward, Ireland became a nation of people who followed the Christian faith.


One story tells how, at the Easter Sunday feast at Tara, Patrick bent down to pluck a shamrock from the sward and used it to illustrate how the three leaves joined together on a single stem represented the Trinity joined together in the Godhead.

Then there's the lovely story of Patrick's chauffeur, or rather charioteer, named Odhran.

In the region of Kildare and Queen's was a chieftain who used to worship Crom Cruach, an enormous demon idol made of stone and gold. Feared by all, Crom Cruach could only be appeased by sacrificing children on Samain (1 November) in return for milk and corn, and the good weather that insured the fertility of cattle and crops. The chieftain was pretty peeved to find out that Patrick had destroyed the idol. He vowed revenge on Patrick and plotted to lie in wait for the saint and murder him.

Odhran overheard this plot, and thought of a plan to save his master.

Before embarking on a journey that would take Patrick into the ambush, Odhran asked Patrick if they could change places for the day; for Patrick to become the driver and Odhran to sit as passenger in the cart. Patrick agreed to this strange request, and they set off.

No sooner as they started, the chieftain's men attacked. They killed Odhran in the cart, believing him to be Patrick. Odhran saved Patrick's life by sacrificing his own, therefore having the 'honour' of becoming a martyr.

Patrick was therefore able to continue on his mission, through into his old age, converting the chieftains who were then followed by their subjects.

And the red saltire?

A popular explanation is from the stone fort Cashel in Munster, the traditional place for coronations, where Patrick baptized the Munster king's son, Aengus.

During the ceremony, old Patrick leaned on his crozier for support and in doing so, accidentally pierced the young prince's foot. Aengus, believing this to be part of the ceremony, simply gritted his teeth and took the pain like a prince should.

At the end of the baptism, Patrick noticed the blood and admired the prince's courage. With the bloodied end of his staff, Patrick drew a red cross on the king's shield, telling him the sign should be a symbol of courage for all to witness.

From this we get the familiar St. Patrick's Cross.

Patrick as a saint

Patrick is credited with miracles in healing the sick and even resuscitating the dead.

He ordained innumerable priests and consecrated no fewer than 350 bishops. He continued his work until he had completed his triumph over Paganism and converted the Irish to Christianity. His work completed, he died around 450 by some accounts, 461 on others, or on 17 March 493 by yet other accounts. This day gives us St. Patrick's Day.

-Main source: New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
-See also St. Brighid's Cross
-Short History Channel video:

Crosses on flags

St. Patrick's Cross


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