Originally written on March 17, 2020 – updated 2023
All we known that March 17 is St Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious holiday celebrated every year in Ireland and by Irish communities around the world. The celebration marks the anniversary of Saint Patrick’s death in the fifth century and represents the arrival of Christianity in the country.
Historically the Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol were lifted for the day, which has encouraged and propagated the holiday’s tradition of alcohol consumption.
On St Patrick’s Day, it is customary to wear shamrocks, green clothing or green accessories. St Patrick is said to have used the shamrock, a three-leaved plant, to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish.This story first appears in writing in 1726, though it may be older. In pagan Ireland, three was a significant number and the Irish had many triple deities, a fact that may have aided St Patrick in his evangelisation efforts.
Celebrations to mark the event long ago spread across the world from Ireland. New York, for example, is noted for its extravagant parades and marching bands, a tradition said to date back to 1776. Such is the enthusiasm that in recent years about 300,000 marchers and two million spectators joined the event.
Boston, too, is noted for its spectacular parades with floats, marching bands, live music, and dyed green beer! Bostonians got in on the act even before New York, when in 1737 the newly formed Charitable Irish Society organised its first parade to honour St Patrick.
Not to be outdone, Chicago dyed its river green for the first time on March 17 in 1962, as a start of a new tradition. There has even been a parade on the streets of Moscow since 1992.
But, what is known about St Patrick? Well, for a start, it is not certain that he was Irish, but it seems having been registered that he was born in Wales or Scotland. Wherever his roots, the history books show that in the late fourth or early fifth century he was captured by pirates, sold into slavery and kept in bondage in Ireland. It is said that he spent six years there working as a shepherd and that during this time he “found God”.
Breaking away from his chains, as it were, he escaped to France where he became a monk. By about 432 he had become a bishop and returned to Ireland as a missionary.
According to Catholic scholars he arrived there in 433 and soon met the chieftan of one of the druid tribes, who tried to kill him. After an intervention by God, Patrick was able to convert the chieftain and went on to preach the Gospel throughout Ireland. He preached there for 40 years, converting thousands of people and building churches across the country.
He died in 461 at Saul, where he had built the first Irish church and is believed to be buried in Down Cathedral, Downpatrick. Over the following centuries, many legends grew up around Patrick and he became Ireland’s foremost saint.
One of the lesser known legends about St Patrick involves him taking part in a debate with the ancient Celtic hero Oisin.
In Celtic mythology, Oisin was one of the legendary Fianna, who were the ancient warriors led by the hero, Finn McCool. Oisin fell in love with Niamh, a Celtic goddess and one of the queens of Tir na Nog, the land of eternal youth. Oisin went to live with her in Tir na nOg and stayed there for several hundred years, never ageing and retaining all his youth and strength.
Eventually, he got homesick so Niamh gave him permission to return to Ireland on condition that he remained sitting on his magical horse at all times and did not touch the ground, even for a second. However, his return to his native land was a disappointment for him because the friends and Fianna warriors he had known had been dead for centuries. Thus, he decided to return to Niamh but before he could do so, he saw a man struggling to lift a huge stone. Oisin stopped to help but as he strained to lift the stone, the strap on the saddle broke and he fell from the horse.
As soon as he touched the ground, he began to age rapidly, turning into a feeble old man. As Oisin lay there dying, St Patrick talked about the relative merits of their two religions and civilisations. St Patrick gets the better of the debate, Oisin dies and St Patrick lives on, symbolising the triumph of Christianity over the pagan gods of the Celts.
There are different but similar versions of this story, likely to have been written by medieval monks that promoted Christian values over those of the ancient Celts.
If today, there are no snakes in Ireland, according to another legend, is thanks to St Patrick. The priest John Colgan began work on a six-volume Irish ecclesiastical history in the 17th Century, including the lives of the saints. In it, he tells how Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland by luring them to the sea where they were drowned.
Colgan relates that he accomplished this feat by beating a drum, but he did so with such fervour that he knocked a hole in it, putting the success of the miracle in jeopardy. Fortunately, we are told, an angel appeared and mended the drum.
Patrick then rendered the Irish soil so obnoxious to serpents that to this day, as story goes, they die immediately on touching it.
In any case, Scientists state this is only a legend, and that snakes have never been seen on the island of Ireland. How would they have got there?
Other say the absence of snakes in Ireland is down to Ice Age. The theory is that snakes started to migrate northwards from southern Europe as the last Ice Age ended and temperatures rose. They reached as far as Britain but then melting ice caps created the Irish Sea, making it impossible for them to get to Ireland.
Scholars in their turn believe that the snake story is an allegory for St Patrick’s eradication of pagan ideology. American classics professor Philip Freeman says that since snakes often represent evil in literature, “when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of the country and brought in a new age.”
The snakes are also seen as symbol of the druids, the high priests of the pre-Christian world. In driving out the snakes, St Patrick is driving out the druids and in doing do, emphasises the triumph of Christianity over paganism.
You know the celtic cross? While preaching to the ancient Celts, St Patrick is said to have tried to make Christianity blend into their culture whenever possible. According to the legend, he saw that the Celts liked circular patterns and decided to blend those patterns with the Christian cross. The idea was that the Cross of the new faith would be more palatable to the Celts if it incorporated symbols from their own culture. Yes, It’s a good story, but unlikely to be true: the cross shape was popular with the Celts long before St Patrick. It was used to symbolise north, south, east and west… and also earth, fire, air and water.
A last legend has it that St Patrick carried a walking stick made of wood from the ash tree. One day, after visiting his parent’s home in Britain, Patrick was taking the opportunity to preach to the people he met as he travelled back to Ireland.
Every time he stopped to preach, he thrust his walking stick into the ground. One day he preached for so long that the stick developed roots and turned into a living tree. The place where it happened became known as Aspatria, meaning ash of Patrick.
It’s thought Irish monks are the most likely source of the story. They were always keen to promote Patrick as a saint, capable of producing miracles.
I almost forgot: the saint’s true name was Maewyn Succat. That obviously lacked an Irish sound, and he later became known as St Patrick, named after his place of burial.