March 17th is the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint – St. Patrick. But over the years it has evolved into a celebration of Ireland and its people, so many forget that St. Patrick wasn’t actually Irish.
St. Patrick has come to be Ireland’s most celebrated immigrant. But, following in his footsteps, many Irish-born holy men also went on to become patron saints of foreign lands.
St. Patrick of Wales
St. Patrick was born in Britain to a family of Roman descent. At 16, he was kidnapped from his family villa by Irish raiders and sold into slavery. Around the beginning of the 3rd century, he spent six years in the West of Ireland herding sheep and, during this difficult time, he turned to his faith for comfort.
Eventually, he managed to escape and return to Britain. His parents pleaded with him not to leave again. However, St. Patrick decided to return to Ireland after he had a dream that deeply moved him.
In his Latin autobiography, Confessio, he describes the dream in which he heard the voice of the Irish people. He wrote: “They called out as it were with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us’.” Soon after, St. Patrick returned to Ireland where he travelled far and wide baptising local people.
In Confessio, St. Patrick also states that he was from Banna Venta Berniae. This was a town in the west of Britain and all the available evidence suggests that it was located in present-day Wales and that St. Patrick would have been thought of as Welsh.
Saints that Ireland gave to the world
While monasteries could be found in Ireland during St. Patrick’s time, many more cropped up once the country became predominantly Christian.
By the end of the 6th century, 100 years after St. Patrick’s death, enthusiasm for Christianity led Irishmen to pursue austere lives as monks, hermits and missionaries to the pagans of Scotland, England and continental Europe.
Just like St. Patrick, some of these Irish-born missionaries went on to become saints in the countries they travelled to.
St. Kilian: Patron saint of Würzburg, Germany
St. Kilian was born to noble parents in Cloughballybeg in modern-day county Cavan around the year 640. He was educated in Rosscarbery, county Cork and Tuosist, county Kerry before travelling to Rome where he received missionary status from the Pope.
He then travelled to Würzburg in Germany where he converted Frankish ruler Duke Gozbert, along with many of his pagan subjects. However, St. Kilian told the Duke that it wasn’t Christian to be married to his brother’s widow. When she heard about this, she had him and his colleagues beheaded in Würzburg’s town square in 689, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Today, he is the patron saint of the city.
St. Coloman: Patron saint of Austria
St. Coloman is believed to have been an Irish monk who was martyred in Austria in 1012. While he was undertaking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Viennese soldiers mistook him for a Moravian spy because of his appearance and the fact that he couldn’t speak the local language. As a result, he was hanged near Vienna.
Legend has it that his body remained preserved for 18 months after his death and became the site of miracles. He was then regarded as a saint and so, a couple years after his death, his remains were taken to Melk Abbey where they are still held today.
He is now considered the patron saint of Austria, Melk, hanged men, horses and horned cattle.
St. Cataldus: Patron saint of Taranto, Italy
According to 12th century sources, St. Cataldus was born near the monastery of Lismore, county Waterford, and later became a monk here.
He rose to the position of bishop in Rachau, Austria. But on his way home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his ship sank and he ended up in Taranto in southern Italy. The story goes that the locals pleaded with him to stay, so he became a bishop there instead.
According to the 1937 publication Irish Saints in Italy, there are 29 places in Italy dedicated to Irish saints.
St. Fursey: Patron saint of Péronne, France
Born near Lough Corrib around 567, St. Fursey became a monk at the monastery of Clonfert in county Galway.
Around 630, he travelled to Britain where he helped the Christian king Sigeberht of East Anglia convert the locals and build monastic settlements. Around 640, he also founded the monastery of Cnoberesburgh near Norfolk.
Some time around the year 640, he sailed to Gaul and settled in modern-day Normandy. He continued to travel and founded a monastery at Lagny, near Paris. When he eventually died, his body was brought to Péronne and he was named a patron.
According to Britannica Encyclopedia, St. Fursey’s visions had a huge impact on dream literature written in the Middle Ages. His vision included assaults by demons, conversations with angels and glimpses of heaven and hell. His accounts were later used as a template for other dream writings.
St. Fridolin: Patron saint of Glarus, Switzerland
St. Fridolin was an Irish-born missionary who is believed to have founded churches among the ancient Franks and Alamanni in the 7th century. In contemporary times, he is popular among German, Swiss and Austrian churchgoers.
Not much is known about his life, but it is believed that he travelled around Ireland preaching before travelling to France, Germany and Austria. Today, his likeness appears on the seal and banner of the canton of Glarus in Switzerland.
Visit EPIC the Irish Emigration Museum to learn more about the Irish missionaries who spread Christianity around the world. Book your tickets here.