According to reports, Ian Paisley junior claims that St Patrick was a 'proto-Protestant'. If by this he is suggesting that Patrick was an evangelical or born-again Christian, he is probably right but it is stretching things to suggest he was Protestant. The word Protestant has a particular historical connotation related to the Protestant Reformation a thousand years after Patrick. Patrick seems to have been guided in his life by dreams, visions and the scriptures rather than through established church authorities but this alone does not make him Protestant. I imagine that certain aspects of Ulster Protestantism would have affronted Patrick, at least as these are usually perceived. The sectionalism, dogmatism and obscurantism often associated with what became known as Ulster Protestantism would seem to be foreign to all that he knew of the Christian gospel.
One thing we can say with reasonable certainty is that Patrick was British-Irish in that he was born into a middle class British-Roman family but, after a deeply moving religious experience on a lonely Irish mountainside, he dedicated his life to the service of God and the conversion of the Irish people. After serious objections to his ordination, on the grounds of his unworthiness, he was ordained Bishop and found his life's work in Ireland and never returned home.
There is not, however, a lot we can know for certain about Patrick. We don't know exactly where he was born in Britain. He names a village where he lived in style with house-hold servants but the place cannot now be identified. It seems likely that his nominally Christian home was near Carlisle. He read few books and became a man of one book the Bible. Thus his writings are punctuated with passages of scripture. His ministry was confined mainly to northern parts of this island and although extravagant claims were and are made regarding his contribution to the conversion of the Irish he was by no means our first Christian missionary. Some churches, notably in the southeast, owe their foundation to earlier missionaries and visitors. Yet Patrick seems to have made an enormous impact on the people leaving traces of his influence to this day 1500 years later.
Was Patrick a catholic? In the best sense of the word meaning a universal perspective the answer seems to be yes. Patrick wrongly saw Ireland as being on the edge of the world and his calling was to the conversion of the Irish as the last people on earth to hear the gospel. He believed that once the Irish were evangelised the whole world would have heard the gospel and Christ would return. In this sense he had a catholic or universal vision. He was certainly no nationalist and would have rejected the relatively modern contradictory association in Ireland between Catholicism and Irish nationalism as unbiblical and unchristian.
In one sense he could almost be described as an imperialist because he appears to have had a positive view of the Roman Empire. In reference to a gang of Roman-British bandits who attacked his Irish converts, he said they were not (laudable) fellow-citizens of the Romans but (discredited) fellow-citizens of devils. The Roman Empire was then nominally Christian and seen by Patrick as a force for good in the world, just as others much later would come to see the British Empire.
Was Patrick a unionist? Ireland in his time had neither centralised structures nor towns of any significance and it was the Romans who created a largely unified other island, excluding most of Scotland and parts of Wales, within the empire. It is usually assumed that the Romans did not settle in Ireland although evidence suggests some Roman settlement near Dublin. Patrick could have seen advantages in links between Ireland and Britain and the continent. However, as far as much of modern unionism is concerned we can be assured that Patrick would have rejected its prevalent sectional character.
He was a humble and courageous Christian who felt called by God to serve the people of this island. He was almost obsessed with a sense of unworthiness and inadequacy hardly the dominant characteristics of either modern unionists or nationalists. Perhaps Patrick's legacy is his ability to point to something greater than petty political power struggles and squabbles. His life was testimony to the ability of human beings to rise above the circumstances of their lives in service to others while retaining a deep awareness of their own humanity and frailty.