Thursday, March 15, 2012

St. Patrick-One Man or Many Myths

St. Patrick-International Man of Mystery

While you are wearing green, or getting pinched this year, it may cross your mind to wonder why we even celebrate this holiday.  Who was St. Patrick, and why do 21st century Americans drink green beer in his honor?  A friend of mine asked me a variant of this question, and I will try my best to give a good answer.

The first thing that has to be done is to sort the facts from the legends.  St. Patrick was born some time between 387 and 416 A.D. in Wales.  His birth name was Maewyn Succat.  When he was a teenager, he was taken captive by Irish raiders and made a slave.  He was bought by a man named Milius and became a shepherd in the mountains.  It was while he was alone with the sheep that he began to feel a connection to God.  His own accounts claim that he prayed upwards of one hundred times a day, even in the rain and snow.  Then he says an angel spoke to him in a dream and told him to escape and find a ship.  He did what the angel in the dream said, and found a ship.  At first the captain denied him passage, but after praying to God for help, Succat was allowed on board.  A storm left the ship stranded on a rocky shore, and the men wandered, lost.  They were hungry, but Succat never lost hope.  More prayers brought a herd of wild pigs and full bellies.  Then the group was attacked by raiders, and Succat was again a prisoner.  This time he was set free and made his way to a village where he learned he had walked all the way home.

Soon, Succat began to feel that God wanted him to move on.  He couldn't stop thinking about it, so he left Wales and traveled to France.  There he entered a monestary and became a monk.  After much study, he became a priest, and got his new name, Patricius, which is Latin for Patrick.  Patrick continued his work for the church, and in 432 he was named a bishop.  Despite his success, he was not content.  He couldn't get the other slaves he left behind in Ireland out of his mind, and all of the non-Christian people still there.  Much of Ireland still followed the Druidic tradition.

He traveled back to Ireland and began teaching about God.  At first the people were either resistant or afraid. Patrick found ways to ease the transition from Druidism to Christianity.  He was a natural teacher who understood that heritage and tradition were important, and so instead of telling the Irish people that they were bad, he slowly convinced them that he served a kind God.  Gradually, more and more Irish people began to accept Christianity. 

Patrick died on March 17, 461.  Not long after, he was named a Saint, and his life began to be celebrated with feasts, dancing, and parties.  St. Patrick’s Day became an official holiday in 1607, more than a thousand years after he died.  As other Irish saints were forgotten, Patrick was more and more widely celebrated.  His legend grew.  By the late 1700s, the symbols we now associate with St. Patrick began to become common, including the shamrock. 

Because of the wide gap between Patrick’s death, and the creation of an official holiday, many scholars believe the Patrick we know today was actually several Christian teachers pieced together into one man.  We do have records of Succat, so we know who he was and that he existed.  However, many of the stories and legends are impossible to prove or disprove.  Miracles, such as the healing of a blind man when Patrick was only a baby, have endured, but no written records of those events from that time remain. 

The practice of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with the Irish immigrants in the mid 1800s.  The Great Famine was forcing many Irish to leave their homeland to avoid starvation.  There was little to celebrate in Ireland, but those who made it to the United States were proud of their heritage.  They were also angry at the British for what they felt was a lack of help, and so many celebrations were also forms of protest.  Even in their new home, all was not well.  Irish immigrants faced outright discrimination and a lack of work opportunities.  Still, these proud people held St. Patrick’s Day parades in which Irish-American political candidates campaigned, in hopes that if they were elected there would be better treatment for Irish-Americans.  Slowly, as success came their way, Irish-Americans became more accepted, and St. Patrick’s Day became a holiday for everyone.  It has spread all over the world, and now, on March 17, we are all Irish for a day. 

St. Patrick’s Day today is a day for wearing green, talking about leprechauns, and possibly enjoying some green beer.  In the past, it was a day to treat oneself during Lent.  Children made special crosses to wear to church, and sang special songs.  They got to eat sweets that were forbidden during the rest of Lent.  After Mass, they would all go on a shamrock hunt.  The adults would have a feast and then dance and tell stories.  Until very recently, this was still the way the holiday was celebrated in Ireland.  In the United States, however, St. Patrick’s Day became more elaborate and boisterous every year.  It changed from a day of protest and pride into a day of huge parades and parties.  March is now Irish-American Heritage Month. 

And what about the symbols we use on St. Patrick’s Day?  Snakes and crosses are associated with a legend that says St. Patrick got rid of all the snakes in Ireland. The legend is actually a symbol itself.  It stands for the “pagans” that St. Patrick cleared away with Christianity.  The Shamrock, or seamrog, is an ancient Celtic symbol of spring and a charm against witches.  St. Patrick later used it in a lesson about the Trinity.  Green is for the “Emerald Isle” of Ireland with its lush green grass. Leprechauns have long been a part of Irish fairy tales, but in 1959, Disney connected them to the holiday in Darby O’Gill and the Little People.  The green-clad elves and their gold at the end of the rainbow became a symbol of the Irish spirit.  Irish music, dancing, and food have become popular at celebrations around the world.  People flock to parades, attend pub crawls, and buy soda bread and corned beef and cabbage.  School children search for the leprechaun’s gold coins. 

The symbols are supposed to remind people of the way the Irish people have faced their challenges and emerged successfully.  They are also a way of holding onto a heritage for people who are scattered around the globe.  So whether you are searching for chocolate coins, watching a green dyed river flow by, or watching a parade, remember that St. Patrick, whether he was one man or many, was a gentle person who became a success despite spending time as a slave far from home.  He wasn’t Irish, but he cared about the Irish people deeply.  On March 17, let’s all remember the resilience of St. Patrick, and the Irish people. 

An Irish Blessing
May your heart be warm and happy
With the lilt of Irish laughter
Every day in every way
And forever and ever after.

Some Jokes Just For Fun
How can you tell an Irishman is having a good time?  He’s Dublin over with laughter.

What’s the best month for a parade?  March

What is green and stays outside?  Paddy O’Furniture

And Finally, Two Clean Limericks By Edward Lear

There was an Old Man of Kilkenny,
Who never had more than a penny;
He spent all that money,
In onions and honey,
That wayward Old Man of Kilkenny.

There was an Old Man with a  beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

Erin go Braugh!!  (Ireland forever in Gaelic)


  1. Great post, Angel! Did you come across anything about how St. Patrick felt about the Roman Empire? If I remember correctly the Romans basically abandoned England/Scotland/Wales around 445, but of course Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. Just wondering if his monastic training in France was completed before or after the Empire began to collapse and how that might have informed his decision to return to Ireland.

  2. I didn't see much mention of the Romans at all. I will keep that in mind for future topics though. There is always next year's post! Some of the sources I used called it Gaul, and others France, but I just stuck with France to keep things easy to follow.