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Statue of St. Patrick at the base of Croagh Patrick mountain, Co Mayo. Alamy Stock Photo
patron saint

St Patrick, patron saint of…Nigeria?

We’re not the only ones who have the famed snake driver as a patron saint.

TODAY, MILLIONS OF people around the world will celebrate Ireland’s patron saint.

St Patrick is famous for his role in spreading Christianity throughout Ireland (Christianity in Ireland pre-dated Patrick, and he did not introduce the religion to the country).

Though dates in Patrick’s life can’t be pinned down with certainty, two Latin works which are accepted as having been written by Patrick survive.

One of these two works, The Declaration, gives some biographical detail about Patrick’s life and a brief account of his life.

Born in Britain, Patrick was taken prisoner by a group of raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland.

During this time, he turned to his Christian faith for guidance.

After more than six years in captivity in Ireland, he escaped back to his home in Britain and became a priest after a period of study lasting more than 15 years.

In The Declaration, Partrick recounts a dream he has once he had returned to Britain.

In the dream, he was delivered a letter headed “The Voice of the Irish”, and Patrick recalled feeling compelled to walk once more in Ireland as he read the letter.

He then returned to Ireland, this time as a missionary in order to convert the people to Christianity and to minister to Christians already living here.

Legend holds that he drove the snakes from Ireland, though there are no fossil records of snakes having ever existed on the island.

The tale is likely an allegory of how Parick helped to cleanse Ireland of “evil” pagan ways.

Driving out the snakes could likely be read as driving pagans out of the country by converting the people to Christianity.

There is also a connection between snakes and Satan within Christianity.

For example, in the Garden of Eden, it was a serpent that deceived Adam and Eve into disobeying God.

His influence on Ireland is far and wide.

He is said to have fasted on the summit of Croagh Patrick during Lent and tens of thousands of pilgrims scale the mountain on the last Sunday in July, Reek Sunday, to honour St Patrick.

statue-of-st-patrick-holding-shamrock-at-croagh-patrick-co-mayo-iraland Statue of St Patrick holding a shamrock at Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Thousands also partake in an austere pilgrimage to Lough Derg in Co Donegal, where pilgrims are permitted one meal per day, consisting of dry toast and black tea or coffee. 

A legend dating back to the 12th Century contends that Jesus showed Patrick a cave on Station Island in lough Derg that was an entrance to Purgatory.

Catholic doctrine holds Purgatory is a place or state of suffering, where the souls of sinners go to purge their sins before entering heaven.

The story goes that Patrick became discouraged with the difficulties he encountered in converting people, so Jesus revealed to him the entrance to Purgatory so that Partrick could show others and bring them to belief in Christianity.

However, there is no proof that Patrick ever made a visit to Lough Derg.

So while it’s pretty clear why Patrick would be the patron saint of Ireland, why is he also the patron saint of Nigeria?

While St Patrick’s Day isn’t a public holiday in Nigeria and the celebrations won’t be too rampant, the country does have a sizeable Catholic population that will be marking today in some form.

There will also be celebrations in the Irish Embassy in Abuja for members of the diplomatic corps.

While the number of people identifying as Catholic in Ireland has been declining since the 60s, there has been strong growth in Nigeria in recent years.

There are around 30 million Catholics in Nigeria, around 15% of its population.

In the early 1900s, 1 in every 120 Irish citizens served as a missionary, many of whom went to Nigeria and to an area that was then called Southern Nigeria Protectorate.

In the early 1920s, Irish priests of the Order of the Holy Ghost established their mission in southern Nigeria, while St. Patrick’s Society for Foreign Missions (Kiltegan Fathers) established theirs in 1932.

Catholic missionaries became increasingly popular in the country due to the education and provision of medical care that they provided.

In 1961, Ireland celebrated the Patrician Year to mark the 1500th anniversary of the death of St Patrick, who is said to have died in Co Down on 17 March, 461 AD.

In the same year, the Irish embassy opened in the Nigerian capital of Lagos.

On the day the Irish Embassy opened in Lagos in 1961, Irish Bishops working in Nigeria nominated St Patrick to be the country’s patron saint and this was accepted by the Nigerian Church.

When Abuja became the new capital of Nigeria in 1991, the Irish Embassy relocated there in 2000.

Father Emmanuel Obi is from Nigeria and was ordained for the St Patrick’s Society for Foreign Missions in 2013.

He said: “The naming of St Patrick as the patron saint of Nigeria in 1961 was not a coincidence but an intended honour to the great saint who had evangelised the very people who were responsible for the evangelisation of Nigeria.”

Fr Obi credited Bishop Joseph Shanahan, born in Tipperary on 1871 and of the Order of the Holy Ghost, as “one of the greatest Irish missionaries whose outstanding legacy is seen in the dominance of Catholicism in eastern Nigeria”.

He said Bishop Shanahan “evangelised the people through the instruments of the provision of the then highly needed education, health care and other necessary social services”.

Fr Obi added: “The success of his missionary activity, led to other emerging Irish missionary groups of men and women like the Holy Rosary Sisters, St Patrick’s Missionary Society, and Sisters of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, going to Nigeria.”

He also noted that the Irish connection can be traced back further still, to the 1890s when Irish nationalist Roger Casement served as a British consular officer in Calabar, Southern Nigeria.

Fr Obi said Casement was “very sympathetic towards Africans while he was in the colonial service”.

Throughout his consular career, Casement served in different parts of Africa and South America including Nigeria, Mozambique, Brazil and Peru.

However, Casement became concerned about the effects of imperialism, retired from the Foreign Office in 1913, and became a key member of the Irish revolutionary movement.

Casement was later executed by Britain for executed by the United Kingdom for treason during World War I for his efforts to go gather German military aid for the Easter Rising.

Speaking at an event in 2016 to mark the centenary of Casement’s execution, then-Minister for Foreign Affairs Charles Flanagan said: “Roger Casement’s work to expose cruelty and abuse in Africa secured his legacy as one of the great Irish humanitarians of the early 20th century.”

roger-david-casement-1864-1916-sir-roger-casement-diplomat-and-irish-nationalist Roger Casement Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

And while plenty of Guinness will be consumed in Ireland today, it’s a similar situation in Nigeria.

The black stuff is the second most popular alcoholic drink in the country and Nigeria is home to the first Guinness brewery outside of the UK and Ireland.

Indeed, many Nigerians sees Guinness as their own national drink and they actually consume more of it than we here in Ireland do.

In the book Guinness: The 250 Year Quest for the Perfect Pint, author Bill Yenne recalled a conversation with Guinness brew master Fergal Murray, who worked at the Nigerian brewery in the 80s.

“I’ve talked to Nigerians who think of Guinness as their national beer,” said Murray.

“They wonder why Guinness is sold in Ireland. You can talk to Nigerians in Lagos who will tell you as many stories about their perfect pint as an Irishman will.”

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