Saint Patrick – A Language Hero

How did a shepherd boy come to be called a Saint who is celebrated every March 17th on the holiday known as St. Patrick’s Day?

A Boy in A Field


A boy, not a day older than seventeen, stands in a field. He looks up at the rays of sunlight sifting through the clouds, wondering if the family he was stolen from is looking up at the same sky. Meet Patrick, a boy born in Roman Britain in the 4th century AD who was kidnapped at the age of 16 to be a slave in Ireland. Growing up in his native tongue, Patrick likely spoke Welsh and began his education in Latin. During his six years as a shepherd-slave, Patrick learned Irish. 


Becoming trilingual was no small feat for a teenager living in an age before language apps, online classes, or even written dictionaries. Thomas Cahill comments in How the Irish Saved Civilization that:


“One sometimes wonders, reading his Confession…if the poor man even has a language of his own. His mother tongue was possibly an early form of Welsh, though it is just as likely that…the ‘native’ tongue was for the servants and only Latin was spoken by the family. He missed all but elementary Latin schooling—and then was plunged into a new language: Irish, similar in certain ways to Welsh, but even at this period markedly different.”


Shepherd to Saint


So how did this shepherd boy come to be called a Saint who is celebrated every March 17th on the holiday known as St. Patrick’s Day? Though Patrick escaped back to his homeland, he was changed forever by his time in Ireland. He had grown to love the people and around 432 AD, he returned to convert the Irish to Christianity. Patrick spent the rest of his lifetime serving the Irish as well as establishing monasteries, churches, and schools. Since his death on March 17, 416 AD, the Irish have honored him by celebrating St. Patrick’s Day for over 1,000 years.

Many countries (United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, United States, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand) have joined the celebration, each adding their own unique twists. 


Two Lessons


I want to point out two significant details about Patrick’s life story:


One, that coming in contact with another culture changed the trajectory of Patrick’s life. He could have lived in bitterness and hatred for the Irish because of the men that kidnapped him. However, when Patrick forgave his captors and found a deep love for the people, he was compelled to return to the Irish, a people and language different from his upbringing. Experiencing a new culture made him want to serve the people of this culture which in turn enriched his own life.


Two, that learning another language goes far beyond the practical functions of society – it connects heart to heart. Yes, learning Irish allowed Patrick to do the duties of business (raise sheep) and navigate necessary conversation, but it went far beyond that. Learning Irish enabled Patrick to connect with the Irish people heart to heart as he shared his values in their language and listened to their needs and responses. 


If you want your child to experience the benefits of learning a new language and culture (while skipping the whole kidnapping part), sign them up for online and in person classes classes with Cultural Bytes.


BONUS – Traditions surrounding St. Patrick’s Day:


    • Four leaf clover: It was said that St. Patrick used a three leaf clover in his teachings. A four leaf clover symbolizes luck because they are rare to find. 
    • Leprechauns and Green: Traditional folklore says that wearing green makes you invisible to leprechauns which pinch anyone they see. That’s why it’s tradition to wear green on St. Patrick’s day.
    • Did you know: The Chicago River in Illinois is even dyed green each year to celebrate the holiday
    • Corned beef and cabbage: The Great Famine resulting from potato blight caused the mass migration of the Irish to the shores of the new world in the 19th century. In this new American home, corned beef was readily available to the Irish immigrants. This traditional dish is usually eaten on St. Patrick’s day. 


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