Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, people sport their “green”. Being Irish, I never felt compelled to “show off” my heritage and if I forgot to wear green that day, oh well. But for my entire life, I have been surrounded by people who, on March 17 celebrate the Irish. I think. Or St. Patrick. Or being Irish. What do they actually celebrate on March 17? Does anyone even know?
Let’s start with the man, himself.
St. Patrick, (Pádraic or Pádraig in Irish) was born in Scotland to an aristocratic, Christian, family around 390 A.D. His parents, Calpornius and Conchessa were Romans who were living in Britain and were in charge of the colonies there.
Around the time that Patrick was 16, he was captured by an Irish raiding party, enslaved and taken across the sea to Ireland where he was forced to work as a shepherd. At that time Ireland was a pagan land – the land of the Druids – and young Patrick learned both the language and the customs of his captors. It’s possible that he was taken to the west, perhaps Mayo, where his existence was rugged, isolated and lonely.
In his youth, Patrick had expressed little interest in Christianity, but during the nearly six years of his captivity, he deepened his relationship with God. Patrick wrote in “The Confession” that those years were critical to his spiritual development and that the Lord took pity on him in his ignorance and forgave him his sins. According to his own writings, “The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was rosed, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same.” “I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain.”
Eventually, heeding a voice that he heard in a dream, Patrick escaped his captors, walked nearly 200 miles to the east coast of Ireland and made his way home across the Irish Sea to Britain. There, he continued his religious studies, was ordained a priest and then a bishop.
Some years later, Patrick recounts having another vision in which a man comes to him in dream: “I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”
Patrick returned to Ireland with a mission to convert and minister to Irish Christians.
Despite having great success in converting the pagan Irish to Christianity, Patrick’s life in Ireland was difficult. As a foreigner and a Christian, he did not conform to the typical lifestyle of the Druids and Chieftans; he did not accept gifts from kings nor did he have affinity or kinship to any family. As a result, he was without protection and was frequently robbed, beaten and even put in chains.
Chapel atop Choagh Patrick
Throughout all the hardship, Patrick “baptized thousands”. He converted kings and their families to Christianity. He ordained priests to lead the communities that he founded and converted women who became nuns and formed communities throughout Ireland. For forty years Patrick worked tirelessly until his death on March 17, 461 A.D. near Saul, where he had built his first Church. He believed so completely in God and the importance of his mission that he feared nothing, not even death.
The shamrock was a sacred symbol to the pagans. Three was a symbolic number and the beautiful color of the plant was revered by them. It was seen as representing the cycle of life: birth, death, rebirth. In the pagan culture there were numerous triple goddesses.
Legend tells us that Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three persons in one God. For that reason, the shamrock is traditionally linked to St. Patrick and to the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.
Celebrating the Feast Day
Historically, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was a national religious holiday. Families celebrated by attending Mass in the morning and returning home for a celebratory dinner. The typical Lenten prohibitions were waived and people danced, drank and feasted on bacon and cabbage. (There is NO corned beef in Ireland!) Up until the 1970’s Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on religious holidays. Beginning in 1995, the Irish Government, realizing the keen interest throughout the world in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, began a national campaign to increase interest in and drive tourism to Ireland for the annual festival. Today, more than one million tourists flock to St. Patrick’s “Day” in Dublin which is a multi-day celebration of Irish history and culture featuring fireworks, parades, outdoor theatre productions and concerts.
St. Patrick’s Day Parades
The first recorded St. Patrick’s Day Parade was on March 17, 1762 not in Ireland, but in New York City. According to the New York Mercury, Irish troops in the British Army marched through the streets playing “fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable harmony.” It helped the troops reconnect with their roots, their music and other Irish troops serving in the British Army at the time.
As the numbers of Irish immigrants grew, so did the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. It became a way for the Irish to show pride of heritage and solidarity in numbers. When over a million poor, uneducated Irish fled to America during the Potato Famine in the 1840’s, Protestant America despised their strange accents and religious ways. “No Irish Need Apply” became a slogan that eliminated Irish from applying for anything but the most menial jobs. When the Irish came out to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, the press portrayed them in cartoons as drunken monkeys.
Anti-Irish cartoon – late 1800’s
Soon, however, the Irish realized that their large numbers empowered them with considerable political clout. The Irish became a powerful swing vote and the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations became a “must attend” for political hopefuls.
The immigrants spread throughout the U.S. and traditions sprung up in every city and town. Unfortunately, the stereotype of the drunken Irishman persists, but organizations like the Ancient Order of Hibernians continue to do great work to dispel that myth.
So, this weekend, as you boil your corned beef (that should be bacon!) and lift a glass of green beer (really????) while singing along with a familiar Irish tune, give a thought to the man and his legacy. I wonder what St. Patrick would think of the worldwide celebration in his name?