Ireland’s Patron Saint
There’s a saying that goes, “On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish!” And from a global perspective, the phrase rings true. On March 17th (which just happens to be the day Glenn and I met), almost every major city on the planet hosts parades and festivities commemorating the Emerald Isle’s patron Saint, with plenty of green, shamrocks and Guinness to mark the occasion. But what do we know about the eponymous Saint himself? With so many legends and misconceptions around the life of St. Patrick, we were inspired to take a closer look. After all, we’re always intrigued to know more about the visionaries who hear their Divine calling, and go to great lengths to answer it. Read on to find out just how he did it.
Let’s get the first misconception about St. Patrick out of the way: he was not actually from Ireland! St. Patrick was born in what’s now considered modern day Scotland. He did not grow up in a particularly religious or intellectual household, but his father was a civic leader, which gave their family a higher social standing in their village. It’s perhaps what led to Patrick’s sudden and terrifying abduction by Irish pirates at the age of 16. The pirates sold young Patrick into slavery, and he was forced to labor as a shepherd in the Irish countryside for several years. The experience led him to find his faith and discover his true calling, reminding us that the harder times in life can make us all the stronger. There are few details known about St. Patrick’s return to Ireland after this traumatic yet enlightening experience, but it is said that he escaped bondage after hearing a Divine voice in a dream that told him to return home and continue his religious studies.
After completing several years of theological study, Patrick heard another Divine voice. However, instead of telling him to leave Ireland, the voice implored him to go back to the Emerald Isle and become the “Voice of the Irish” and the religious servant of the Irish people. There is some controversy regarding Patrick’s first few years of missionary work in Ireland, including some accusations that he was pursuing this work for financial gain. After a trial where these accusations were aired however, Patrick is said to have given back each and every gift or form of payment he received from his work, and he continued to serve “pro-bono” all over Ireland.
St. Patrick popularized the shamrock as an iconic symbol of Irish culture. Legend has it that he used it as a means of explaining the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) to Ireland’s pagan kings, amassing his legion of followers. This tradition and explanation was passed on, and is now a central symbol of St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland itself. You can often find icons and depictions of the Saint holding his shepherd’s staff and shamrock in churches throughout the country.
An odd botanical fact about Ireland is that there is a complete lack of snakes on the island. This curious absence gave rise to what is perhaps the most widely spread St. Patrick fable. According to lore, the Saint chased the snakes of Ireland into the sea after he was overcome by them during a 40-day solo fast on a coastal hilltop. Modern day geologists chalk this up to Ireland’s post glacial geographic location, but the fable remains as iconic today as it did in St. Patrick’s time.
If you’ve ever seen an image of St. Patrick, be it etched in satined glass at a cathedral or woven into an ancient medieval tapestry, you’ll notice that he is often portrayed with a shamrock and an ash wood walking stick. Legend has it that when he was evangelizing throughout Ireland, he would place this walking stick into the ground, and would not leave until the stick took root and became a living tree, thus symbolizing his success as an ambassador to Christianity.
St. Patty’s Day wasn’t always the big green party we know and love. Beginning in Ireland in the 9th or 10th century, March 17th was a minor religious holiday commemorating the day of the Saint’s death. Lent restrictions were temporarily lifted, and the Irish were allowed to feast, drink and dance. The pubs always closed so that everyone might celebrate at home with friends and family, and no all-green outfits or leprechaun hats were involved. As Irish communities grew abroad, particularly in America, expats began to incorporate Irish cultural elements into the March 17th celebration, throwing jubilant parades and festivities to show their pride. That’s how the day became associated with the Irish folklore symbols and icons we see around the world today.