All Aboard for St. Patrick's Day, A Rich Celebration of Irish History, Culture and Craic
Every year, for just one day, the world becomes Irish. There are green-dyed beards, green-tinted dyed pints and green-lit buildings in cityscapes all around the globe. But as we celebrate St Patrick’s Day—with our own special 17% off sale until March 17th—what is the story of the Irish feast day? How did it become such a globally significant event? And who, really, was St Patrick? All will be revealed. Read on!
The History of St. Patrick's Day
St Patrick's Day is traditionally a religious holiday—and increasingly more a cultural one—celebrated annually on March 17th, the traditional date of death of Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. The holiday is observed by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and many other Christian denominations. It is also a public holiday in Ireland, and is celebrated around the world by tens of millions of people who claim Irish descent—as well as countless hordes who, like the hundreds of thousands who throng to Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval or a host of other celebrations around the world, simply like the feeling of being part of a heaving mass of happy people sharing happy times.
St. Patrick's Day originated in Ireland as a religious holiday to honor Saint Patrick, one of three Irish patron saints—the others being Brigid and Columba—but always held as the primary saint among that trio.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Who was St. Patrick?
Patrick was actually born in Roman Britain, although there does not appear to be any great certainty exactly where. Several theories have been put forward, some placing his birthplace at the south of Wales, others saying Cumbria and others still claiming that he could have come from modern-day Scotland. What is certain is that he was not born in Ireland, and only came there having been captured by a group of Irish pirates, taken to Ireland and kept as a slave for six years. The story of this journey, which started at the age of 16, is charted in the Confessio—or Confession of St Patrick—a text said to have been written by Patrick as an autobiographical account of his life in Britain and Ireland.
His tortuous years of development led him to seek solace in spiritual matters, presumably as there were so little comforts in his environment. When he escaped his captors, he managed to persuade a ship’s captain to take him on board—but the challenges were not exactly over. The ship’s captain and crew and their new addition landed in Britain but could find no food or sustenance of any kind.
After, it is said, about a month of wandering in the wilderness, Patrick encouraged his colleagues to place their faith in God and soon after a herd of wild boar arrived on cue. If they did not exactly offer themselves up as a nice roast, that was what their arrival communicated to the starving men. Their survival was assured, for a while at least, and Patrick’s faith is said to have persuaded them to look at him, and spiritual matters, in a new light.
Buoyed in his spiritual and religious direction, and having had a vision that the place where he had been enslaved would play a major role in the rest of his life, he later returned to Ireland as a missionary and spent the rest of his life converting the Irish to Christianity.
St Patrick was important for a number of reasons. Firstly, he is credited with converting the Irish people to Christianity, which had a profound impact on the country's history and culture. Secondly, he is remembered for his efforts to promote peace and reconciliation between the various tribes and clans of Ireland, which were often in conflict with each other. Finally, he is celebrated for his humility and his devotion to God, which inspired many others to follow in his footsteps.
Today, St Patrick is venerated as one of the greatest saints of the Christian faith, and his legacy is celebrated each year on St Patrick's Day. The holiday has become a symbol of Irish heritage and culture around the world, and millions of people of all backgrounds come together to celebrate this important day.
Photo courtesy of Flickr
What did Patrick do in Ireland?
As with the specifics around Patrick’s birth, so too his death. The only generally accepted fact is that Patrick lived and died sometime in the 5th Century AD, courtesy of some sleuthful triangulation work matching some of the historic details of Patrick’s life with other historic details of the time.
For example, the Letter to Coroticus, believed to have been written by Patrick and addressed to Coroticus, a British regional king or chieftain, protesting the stark treatment of Irish people at the hands of the British, includes references to the paganism of the Frank people, who are generally accepted to have converted to Christianity in about 500 AD.
Given that we’re talking about a life that was lived more than 1500 years ago, and that the printing press was still about 900 years away at the time of Patrick’s life, it’s perhaps understandable that details are sketchy, and those that we have are likely to have been either embellished or entirely made up over the years that followed.
But the one generally accepted fact is that he was at least greatly instrumental in spreading the word of Christianity in Ireland and converting many people from the old pagan beliefs and traditions. He was joined by another missionary, a Gallic spiritual teacher called Palladius. Indeed, so uncertain are the histories over a millennium and a half that many of the details of Patrick’s life are likely to be mixed up with those of Palladius’s life, and vice-versa.
What is the story about St Patrick and the snakes?
One persisting legend, which almost every Irish man or woman will have learned at school, is the story about St Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland. It goes that Patrick had embarked on a 40-day fast on a hillside, and while engaging in his search for spiritual sustenance he was attacked by a school of slitherers. So infuriated by their brazenness, he picked up the serpents on his staff and flung them into the Irish Sea, never to set belly on Ireland again.
However, it’s accepted by now that this story owes much more to myth than to real history. Ireland has in fact never been home to snakes, at least not since the country was separated from the European mainland after the last Ice Age approximately ten thousands years ago. Looking at the map of Europe now, with Ireland and Britain both islands off its northwestern edge, it’s perhaps surprising that Britain is home to several varieties of snake, but it seems this owes more to climatic history than to religious banishment: Britain was joined to Europe much longer by the ice-sheets, allowing the adder and his friends to make it there, but no further.
Given their role in the Old Testament, banishing serpents is of course a handy weapon to have in your armor if you’re going to be held up for serious religious adulation. Columba, Patrick’s predecessor by about 200 years, was also claimed to have sent the snakes from the country, and many other saints around the world are said to have emerged from fierce battles with snakes over the centuries.
What is the story about St Patrick and the shamrock?
Another enduring legend about Patrick, and one a little more palatable and colorful for us all, is the one that has made the shamrock a unifying symbol of Ireland and Irishness for hundreds of years.
A little plant that’s a member of the clover family, the shamrock plant has three distinctive leaves, and it was this plant that, according to legend, Patrick used to explain the Holy Trinity: three separate divinities embodied and joined in one deity.
From the name of Shamrock Rovers, one of Ireland’s most historic soccer clubs, to the tourism promotion body Failte Ireland, to IDA Ireland, the business promotion body that promotes foreign direct investment in Ireland, to the logo of the Boston Celtics basketball franchise, the shamrock can be seen everywhere as an easily recognized symbol of Irishness.
The story about Patrick and the shamrock may be a myth or hold some deep and cherished kernel of truth, but whatever way you want to look at it, the story is what matters. The story itself endures, and it’s the story that creates the symbolism. The story creates history more than the other way around.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
St Patrick and the two hills of County Meath
St Patrick is associated with both the Hill of Tara and the Hill of Slane, two landmarks that were important historically, religious, mythologically and even politically in ancient Ireland.
According to legend, when St Patrick arrived back in Ireland after his suffering, wandering and awakening, he was determined to spread Christianity and establish churches throughout the country. One of the most important locations for this was the Hill of Tara, which was the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland and a major spiritual center in pre-Christian times. St Patrick is said to have lit a fire at Easter on the Hill of Tara to celebrate Easter, seen as a direct challenge to the pagan ritual fires that were traditionally lit there. This act of peaceful defiance is said to have impressed the local chieftains and helped to establish St Patrick's credibility as a spiritual leader in Ireland.
The Hill of Slane, just 12 or so miles to the north, is also associated with St Patrick, who is said to have visited the site in order to light a fire there as well. According to legend, the local king, Lóegaire mac Néill, had forbidden any fires to be lit before his own ritual fire on the Hill of Tara, but St Patrick defied this order and lit his own fire on the Hill of Slane, sending a message both to the chieftains and the people of the country.
Today, both Tara and Slane remain important historical and spiritual sites in Ireland, and are popular destinations for day-tripping tourists, history nerds and spiritual pilgrims alike.
Photo courtesy of Flickr
What happens on St Patrick's Day?
Belying its religious roots, over several hundred years St Patrick's Day has evolved into what it is today: a celebration of Irish culture and heritage that includes parades, music, dancing, and other festivities cherished both by Irish people at home and, perhaps even more so, among the estimated 80-100 million people around the world who claim Irish heritage now, a consequence of almost 200 years of continual migration from Ireland in search of better lives abroad, from the Great Famine of the 1840s and through various depressions, recessions and calls to adventure since then.
The St Patrick’s Day parade is one of the most recognizable features of St. Patrick's Day. The streets of Dublin and almost all other towns and cities in Ireland will be adorned by floats and festivities throughout the day, but the first St Patrick’s Day parade was actually held in New York in 1762, organized by Irish soldiers serving in the British army.
NYC still hosts the biggest and most renowned parade in the world, with an estimated 2 million people of all nationalities attending each year and more than 100,000 marchers, representing institutions and clubs from all over the world, bringing Fifth Avenue to a standstill for an entire afternoon.
The largest St. Patrick's Day parade in Ireland is held in Dublin, and attracts over 500,000 visitors each year, while the smallest one we’ve heard about—and please let us know if you’re aware of any smaller—was half a dozen fun-loving gentlemen around a pool table in the backroom of a bar in County Leitrim a few years ago as the patrons turned on their stools to observe (and join in with) the fun, festivities and craic.
St. Patrick's Day is now celebrated around the world, with parades, festivals, and other events held in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Japan, Dubai and many other places. Perhaps the most unique St Patrick’s Day celebration of all has taken place each year in Chicago for more than half a century, with the city’s river dyed green for a day and thousands of people descending on the city to celebrate.
Patrick: An enduring legend
Despite the many legends associated with him, the main legacy of St Patrick might be his role in bringing Christianity to Ireland and in doing so promoting peace, reconciliation and the Christian message between the different tribes and clans around the country.
More than 1500 years on, peace and reconciliation are still cherished and fragile commodities almost everywhere, not just in Ireland, and anyone who dedicates their life to them deserves plenty of veneration. That old relevance of St Patrick's Day, as something more than just a day to drink green beer or wear a leprechaun costume, makes it an important holiday for the ancient people of Ireland and their countless descendants and friends around the world.
While the holiday itself has evolved over the centuries, from a religious observance in Ireland to a global celebration of Irish culture and heritage marked by parades and festivities in countries in every part of the globe, that old formative story of St Patrick still carries weight when we take it out and dust it off and hold it to the light.
A month wandering in the wilderness, sustained by faith alone, and the illumination and clarity of that faith that followed, and his return to the land where he suffered so greatly in his youth, finally becoming a heroic figure whose legend lasts through the ages.
All of it so neatly ties in with the “hero’s journey” of many religious, spiritual and mythic heroes through history.
To the likes of Jesus Christ and Odysseus, Quetzalcoatl and Luke Skywalker, add Patrick of Ireland, who may not have sent snakes scuttling into the distance, but who was, clearly, able to communicate and inspire, to tell a story of hope and peace, and to ensure that the place he lived would never, ever be the same again. And you probably can’t ask for much more out of one lifetime than that.
Don’t forget to take advantage of the RealIrish.com special site-wide 17% off sale until March 17th. Click here to shop - discount cannot be combined with other offers.