Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!
What I really love about St. Patrick’s Day is that this day, with all its celebrations, is truly a Christian holiday. There were no pagan festivals that occurred around this time that Christians came in and stole, yet it’s largely a secular holiday.
But what exactly are you celebrating? Who was St. Patrick?
St. Patrick (born as Maewyn Succat, who later took the name Patricus after becoming a bishop), the patron saint of Ireland, was born somewhere between the late 4th-early 5th century in Roman Britain to an aristocratic family. While his family was Christian, the pampered Patrick was largely apathetic to religion.
Unfortunately for Patrick, this all changed when he was kidnapped at 16 years old, taken to Ireland, and sold as a slave to a chieftain named Milchu. The traumatic event caused Patrick to re-evaluate his life, and he began to pray and eventually became a very religious man.
He remained a slave for 6 or 7 years in Ireland, until (by his claims) a voice came to him in his dreams and told him that he could escape via a pirate ship 200 miles away. He was reunited with his family, and devoted his life to his religion. The voice returned to tell Patrick to go back to Ireland to convert Irish Druids to Christianity. Before doing so, he entered into a monastery, and became a bishop.
After being given the pope’s blessing, he went back to Ireland and set to work converting the pagan people of Ireland to Christianity, pissing off Irish Druid leaders to the point where he was arrested several times. He persevered, though. Myths say that he set about converting people by using a three-leaf clover to describe the holy trinity and by running all snakes out of Ireland.
What actually happened probably wasn’t quite so nice. There never were any snakes in Ireland, and some historians believe the “serpents” he “chased to the sea” were actually the Irish Druids refusing to convert to Christianity being killed; which, given Christian history, seems likely.
Whatever Patrick did, it seemed to work. By the time he died on March 17th, 493, much of Ireland was Catholic. St. Patrick was eventually canonized, and in Ireland, his day was minor- people would hear a sermon in the morning at church, and eat a big feast in his honor for dinner. Irish pubs were closed on March 17th until the 1970s.
So, where did all the celebrations come from?
As I previously stated, the holiday itself wasn’t a big deal in Ireland. Eighteenth century Irish soldiers fighting with the British during the American Revolutionary War were the catalysts for the huge celebrations. As a way to reconnect with their Irish roots, soldiers marched through cities on St. Patrick’s Day.
When the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland, many poor Irish Catholics began to pour into America. They were largely despised and discriminated against, but since there were so many of the them (close to one million Irish people immigrated to America during the famine), they began to organize and get political, soon becoming collectively known as the “green machine.”
St. Patrick’s Day parades then became important- it was a way for Irish Americans to show their strength and resolve. Many political hopefuls attended these parades in hopes to get the green machine’s votes. Over the years, the celebrations have gotten larger, and in 1995, Ireland began to use St. Patrick’s Day to drive in tourism and showcase Ireland and its cultures to the rest of the world.
History.com - St. Patrick’s Day
Huffington Post - Saint Patrick and the Snakes
Nat. Geo. - St. Patrick’s Day 2012
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia - Saint Patrick