St. Patrick Was a Dog Whisperer Too

By Patrick Burns & Melissa Jo Peltier

In the month of March, people of all ethnic backgrounds traditionally wear green and hoist a glass of beer to honor the Irish St. Patrick. Few of them know that the good Saint’s background includes his affinity for and expertise with dogs.

St. Patrick was actually a Roman by the name of Maewyn Succat, born in 387 AD in either Kilpatrick, Scotland or Banwen, Wales.  At the age of 16, Maewyn was captured by Irish raiders and sold as a slave to the Irish chieftain Milchu of Dalriada.   For the next six years, Maewyn tended his Irish slave master’s sheep and pigs in the Braid valley of Ireland.  There, he learned both the Celtic language, and the ways of the Irish herding and hunting dogs.  He lived and ate among the farm animals and slept curled up next to his dogs for warmth.

There are many legends about St. Patrick’s early years, but one stands out for dog lovers to this day.  It’s said that his favorite sheepdog appeared to him in as an angel a dream, alerting him to the presence of a ship on the Irish coast on which he could escape.  Maewyn left that night, and after stumbling over 200 miles of Irish countryside, arrived at a ship bound for Gaul that was loaded with Irish Wolfhounds and other large breeds, assembled by dog dealers bent on shipping them to the continent to be used against wild animals and gladiators in the Roman arenas.  The dealers refused his pleas to come aboard, until they noticed that his presence had a soothing effect on the agitated animals.  Maewyn offered to trade his expertise with canines for passage across the waters, and finally, the traders agreed.

While the journey – first to Ireland and then to Spain – was filled with peril and all aboard nearly died, Maewyn was finally allowed his freedom, and after selling the dogs, he headed to Tours, France (Gaul) where he joined St Martin’s Monastery. There, he became a devout Christian and was renamed Patricius by Pope Celestine I.

In 432, the Pope sent him back to Ireland.  According to the lore, he was met upon arrival by Dichu, an Irish pagan prince, out hunting with his favorite Wolfhound, Lauth.  The Prince immediately ordered Lauth to attack, but when Patrick stretched out his saintly hand, the dog bowed down and gently licked him.  The Irish say that as a thank-you to all canines, St. Patrick allowed the Irish hero Ossain to take his pack of hounds with him to heaven.

Through a series of fabled exploits, St. Patrick converted a great number of Pagans to Christianity before his own death in 461 AD.  As for the notion that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, it’s simply not true.  There were never any snakes in Ireland!  What St. Patrick did was begin to rid Ireland of the influence of Paganism, which was often associated with twisted, snake-like celtic line-drawings of animals. There were no snakes.  But there were plenty of dogs.

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