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Who Was Saint Patrick?

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Slave, traveler, evangelist, abolitionist, and saint. A scant 400 years after Jesus' birth, the priest known as Patrick took the Great Commission seriously, to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth by converting the frightening barbarians of that scary outpost known as Ireland. Dates and details of Patrick's life are somewhat ambiguous since written records from fifth-century Ireland are scarce. A lot of what we know comes from what little Patrick himself wrote, or from biographies written long after his time.

According to tradition, Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in Britain (different sources say England, Scotland, or Wales) to Roman parents around AD 387. In his later ministry, he went by the name Patricius Daorbae which means "Patrick who was once a slave."

When he was around 16 years old, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish marauders who sold him into slavery to a Druid herdsman named Milchu. Patrick remained in Ireland for six years. During this time, Patrick learned the Celtic language and became acquainted with the practices of the Druids. He later wrote that he became close to God during this time and prayed every night for his deliverance. He ran away after hearing direction from an angel and walked 200 miles to catch a boat back to Britain. Afterward, Patrick was sent to France to begin his training for the priesthood despite the long break in his formal education. When he achieved priesthood, Patrick was assigned to Britain, but his dream was to return to Ireland to convert the pagans.

According to later biographers, his teachers recommended him to Pope Celestine I for a mission to Ireland, or it’s possible he left for Ireland on his own because of a vision. While Patrick was not the first Catholic bishop assigned to Ireland, he was the first who set a goal of converting the entire country. His predecessor Palladius was mainly concerned with ministering to the existing Irish Christian minority in the south and protecting them from the influence of the Druids. Celestine sent Patrick to Ireland in 428 or 432.

Patrick's first quest in Ireland was to see the slave owner of his youth, the Druid Milchu; not to seek revenge, but to convert him. Milchu heard the news of the priest's arrival in Ireland and he committed suicide by burning himself, his home, and his treasures before Patrick arrived. Sources of this story vary, with some saying Milchu killed himself out of fear that Patrick was seeking revenge. Others say Milchu was a proud Druid who preferred death to listening to the foreign gospel. In any case, Patrick was devastated.

Patrick's first church was in what is now County Down. He converted a Druid chieftain named Dichu who granted him a barn on a hill, or Sabhail (pronounced Saul), where Patrick founded a church.

The priest traveled from coast to coast in Ireland, visiting kings and chieftains, speaking their language and evangelizing. He confronted Druids and performed miracles by resisting their powers and escaping the several times he was taken prisoner. Patrick converted leaders and slaves alike, and founded churches in many corners of Ireland. One Easter, Patrick and his followers started a fire early in the morning near Tara. The local law forbade anyone starting a fire before the king did, so King Laoghaire and his Druid priest faced off with Patrick, who did not back down but told those present of his powerful God. As the story goes, a Druid magician challenged Patrick to a trial by fire, which led to the magician's death.

Image Cathedral of Armagh. Image by Brian Shaw.

Patrick was especially proud of bringing Christianity to Ulster in the northern part of Ireland, and founded the Cathedral of Armagh, which still stands on a hill he selected.

Odhran, St. Patrick's charioteer, became a martyr by saving the bishop's life. Odhran heard a rumor of an assassination, and persuaded Patrick to change jobs with him on the appointed day as a special favor. Unaware of the threat, Patrick granted his wish, and Odhran was attacked and killed.

Patrick was one of the first people in the history of the world to publicly denounce the institution of slavery. Slaves had no voice—those in power owned slaves, and the church didn't condemn slavery for another thousand years. Patrick, however, had been there, done that, and his identification with the downtrodden helped him convert those who were ignored by the powers that be. He was also an early feminist, actively evangelizing women in an age when many missionaries discounted or feared them. His activities in this area may have led to some trouble with the Catholic church, which led to Patrick writing his extensive Confessio.

Croagh Patrick, or St. Patrick's Mountain, was his refuge and purgatory. It was on this hill that Patrick fasted and prayed for 40 days straight for the people of Ireland. He pleaded to God for special treatment for the Irish on judgment day. The hill became a pilgrimage site, and gold was discovered there in the 1980s, but is not mined.

Later in life, Patrick retired to his first church, Sabhail. He wished to die at Armagh, but a vision told him to stop his journey and return to Saul and remain there. St. Patrick died in 463 or 491 or some year on March 17th, which became his feast day, as is the custom for saints, although St. Patrick was never officially canonized by the Vatican, as his sainthood predated formal canonization.

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Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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