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St. Patrick’s Day: Myths and Truths

Updated: Jun 9, 2019

by: Barbara Peterson March 16, 2019

The Luck of the Irish. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be ironic or quixotically hopeful because other than the green-garbed fictional little people with pots of gold, I don’t see the Irish as being defined by their good fortune, not for the last couple hundred years anyway, what with civil wars, the Great Famine, mass oppression, and poverty. Nevertheless, Ireland and its people are worthy of celebration, and on St. Patrick’s Day, it’s nice to believe in a little magical good fortune. If you’re of a more realistic and practical nature, however, a liberal amount of beer can soften the hard edges and allow you to believe for a while that four-leaf clovers bring luck, and riches lying at the end of rainbows will bless you with a charmed existence, at least for this one day.

I look forward to St. Patrick’s Day every year with mixed feelings. There are aspects to the holiday that I love and others I find disquieting. My mother’s name was Pat, née Patricia Catherine Costello. So, for me, celebrating Pat’s Day is, to some degree, cherishing her name, her family’s Irish heritage, and her Catholic religious background. I’m all for celebrating memories of her. And I certainly don’t mind joining with others to tip a glass of Irish stout and forget about my anxieties for awhile. The part that I can’t fully support, though, is the actual historical basis of the holiday’s namesake. 

Much of what is known about Patrick is taken from his own writings in the Declaration. Yet, there is still a great deal that is unknown and only guessed at. His birthplace was either somewhere in Roman Britain or in Scotland; and he was born sometime during the late 4th century A.C.E. What we do know is that St. Patrick’s Day was traditionally Feast Day, a celebration of the patron saint of Ireland who is said to have died on March 17, 461 A.C.E.

Although Patrick was not born in Ireland, it is there that he made a name for himself, allowing the Irish to claim him as their patron saint. His given name was likely Maewyn Succat, and his Romanized name was Patricius. While there is no known record of his mother, we do know he was the son of Calpurnius, who some claim was a Roman-British officer and others claim was a Deacon. We also know that at some point as a child, Patrick was kidnapped, along with many other boys, and brought to Ireland to be sold as a slave. During his 6 years of capture where he was forced to work as a shepherd in the north, he learned much about the Irish language and customs. Eventually, he escaped and, at some point, made his way to France where he studied for 12 years at a monastery then continued his studies back in Britain until he claimed that a prophetic dream called him to spread the teachings of the Bible in Ireland.

Christianity arrived in Ireland before Patrick, most probably through the influence of Roman Britain in the early fifth century. Yet, it remained predominantly pagan and druidic. Converting the Irish did not come easily, but Patrick refused to quit, believing it was his calling to preach the word of God. In time, he started to gain followers who helped him spread his faith throughout the island. It’s believed that he baptized 10s of thousands of people and helped create hundreds of Catholic churches, ordaining priests and converting women into the role of nuns.

Because there never were snakes in Ireland, the legend of Patrick “putting the curse of God on them all and driving them out” is likely a metaphor representing his conversion of Ireland from paganism to Christianity, the snake being a Christian symbol attributed to pagans. Through his efforts and others like him, the native pagan cultures virtually disappeared under the powerful and persistent influence of the Roman Catholic Church. And this is the part of the holiday that troubles me. I’m not making any judgments about which religion or cultural beliefs are better or worthier; rather, I’m saying that it is always a bit sad for me when any indigenous culture vanishes under the dominating influence of a stronger and more unified one.

On the more positive side, what’s not to love about the Green Isle itself: the Cliffs of Moher, the Magical Midlands, the Burren, the Lakes of Killarney, the Highlands, and the smaller islands, as well as the many castles, pubs, villages, and restaurants, and the down-to-earth friendliness of the people. When Irish immigrants started crossing the Atlantic to America in the early 18th century, Feast Day became more than a commemoration of St Patrick; it became a day to celebrate the Irish people, their history, and their culture. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737, and as more and more Irish came to America and emigrated to other countries, St. Patrick’s Day grew in popularity until it became one of the most widely celebrated national holidays in the world.

Many wear green and an image of the three-leafed clover while they drink with friends to honor the Irish culture and history or just to be part of a day filled with carefree, harmless revelry. Originally, however, the color associated with St Patrick’s Day was blue, the color worn by the Order of St. Patrick, established in 1783. It wasn’t until a decade later that green was adopted because it was the color worn by the United Irishmen during the Rebellion and it thus became the symbol for Irish nationalism.

The three-leafed clover is sometimes said to be attributed to Patrick using it to represent the Holy Trinity. Yet, it is far more likely that he did as many others do when taking over another culture; he converted a powerful symbol of the existing culture (in this case, a common object representing the spiritual number 3) into new meanings and representations. The number 3 in ancient cultures, including Ireland, is a most powerful symbol connecting life on earth with the after-life. It has for centuries in pre-history represented the triad of the mother, crone, and maiden which are pagan symbols of life, death, and (re)birth.

Drinking green beer and one’s favorite Irish whiskey on St. Paddy’s Day is also a modern invention. It likely comes as no surprise to many that this form of celebrating is due more to modern advertisers than to holiday tradition. In fact, Irish public houses were closed during the holiday as it was not encouraged for people to consume alcohol in commemoration of the Patron Saint. When the holiday spread around the world and beer and whiskey advertisers in the 20th century began pushing their agendas, St. Patrick’s Day started to become associated with drinking generous amounts of booze.

I’ve had the pleasure with my husband to visit both eastern and western counties of the Republic of Ireland. Everywhere we went we enjoyed absolutely stunning views and people who were remarkably kind and friendly. We didn’t make it yet to Northern Ireland, but hope to visit someday soon. All in all, honoring the Irish people, the verdant and picturesque island itself, and the proud history and perseverance of its people is certainly worthy of celebration. So, happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all, and during your festivities, I leave you with a few old Irish sayings:

“It is often that a person’s mouth broke his nose,”

“May you live to be 100 years, with one extra year to repent,” and

“May you be poor in misfortune, rich in blessings, slow to make enemies and quick to make friends. And may you know nothing but happiness from this day forward.” 


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