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History vs. Legend

The Story of Saint Patrick's Day

No country celebrates its patron saint like Ireland. Nor, indeed, has any national day been embraced the world over like Saint Patrick’s Day. For a country whose history is characterized by conflict with the British, however, it is perhaps the biggest irony of all that the man himself—the quintessential Irish Catholic hero—was a Briton. The St. Patrick of the twenty-first century—the green-garbed, shamrock-toting bishop responsible for the entire conversion of Ireland to Christianity—is a far cry from the aristocratic British atheist who first stepped off a boat onto Irish soil in the fifth century. The story of St. Patrick’s Day is a story of history versus legend—of political and religious manipulation of a man who, during his own life, was an understated and little-known cleric but who, in posterity, became the greatest Irish hero of all time.

The Real Saint Patrick

The historical Patrick is a shadowy figure. This is partly due to the nature of the time he lived in, from which written records are sparse or dubious and often of little historical value—and partly due to his own desire to keep events such as his death and burial low-key affairs. Patrick was, at his own request, buried in an unmarked grave and, therefore, avoided much of the furore which generally follows the death and subsequent veneration of a saint. For these reasons, Patrick seems to have fallen into obscurity in the centuries following his passing, and but for several vague estimations in the Irish Annals, even the year of his own death is unestablishable. Nevertheless, this hasn’t deterred numerous historians and biographers from penning colorful and flowing narratives of Patrick’s life, stretching to hundreds of pages and including assumptions based primarily on Patrick’s own two surviving works of literature, his Confession and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Amid the haze, however, it is possible to pinpoint many of the main landmarks in Patrick’s life.

st patrick sin
St. Patrick found God whilst enslaved in Ireland

Patrick, or Patricius, was born at some point toward the end of the fourth century A.D., coinciding with the final few decades of Roman occupation in Britain. Patrick’s family were of the landowning class, and his father, like his grandfather before him, held a position as a lower-ranked member of the clergy (Freeman). Perhaps surprisingly, however, given his future vocation, religious faith was not something which Patrick shared in common with his father—in fact, by the age of 15 he was what would now be called an atheist. It was at this point in his life that Patrick committed a sin so appalling that it would haunt him for the rest of his days. The exact nature of the sin is, and probably always shall be, unknown, but it was a sin so great that years later Patrick’s fellow bishops in Britain, upon discovery of his transgression, demanded he stand trial and be stripped of his position. Shockingly, biographer Phillip Freeman has suggested that the only crime great enough to have roused such passion at that time was the act of murder.

Aged just 15 and with his sin, whatever it was, still undetected, Patrick was enslaved by a group of professional Irish slave raiders and transported to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity tending sheep on a farm. It was during this time, he tells us, that he found God. Tormented by his demeaning enslavement, and probably crippled by guilt over his sin, Patrick became increasingly religious and prayed regularly for his freedom. He eventually escaped and returned to Britain, assisted by dreams in which he believed God spoke to him directly and guided him to freedom. The ordeal in Ireland had changed Patrick, however, and encouraged by his new-found faith, he returned to Ireland as a bishop where, legend has it, he was responsible for the conversion of the entire island to Christianity.

The Legend Begins

As the years of obscurity following his death demonstrate, however, this legend was not immediately known to Patrick’s contemporaries. However, from the seventh century onward, the notion of Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland began to grow. The modern-day celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day can trace its roots to the Armagh hagiographer Muirchu, who wrote Life of Saint Patrick in the seventh century. Ireland in that time was ruled by a large number of petty kingships, many of which claimed overkingship of all of Ireland. Among the main contenders for supremacy was the Ui Neill dynasty, based at Tara in Armagh, and Muirchu’s Life probably reflects an attempt to venerate Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland in order to give political weight to their case. Muirchu’s claim that Patrick was solely responsible for the conversion of Ireland to Christianity furnished the assertion that Patrick had chosen Armagh as the headquarters of his church (Hopkin). Thus, the first recorded claim of Patrick as patron saint of Ireland can be established.

St. Patrick's Day: Religious Feast

By the ninth century, the 17th of March—believed at the time to be the day on which Patrick had died—had become the focal point in a three-day celebration of religious feasting. An entry in the Book of Armagh (c. 807) contains the directive that all monasteries and churches should honor Patrick’s death with three days of feasting (Hopkin). The legend continued to grow primarily in oral tradition, and at some point between the ninth century and the Norman invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century, the famous myth that Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland was formulated. It is a remarkably resilient myth which remains strong to this day and is probably symbolic of Patrick driving evil, in the shape of paganism, out of Ireland. In the five centuries between the Norman invasion and the Irish rebellion against English rule in 1798, the legend of Saint Patrick continued to grow in oral tradition, and the day began to move away from a religious holiday and become a far more secular celebration characterised by hard drinking and symbolised by various secular emblems such as the shamrock and the color green. The reasons for the adoption of these symbols can be found in Ireland’s complex political anatomy.

Symbolism

green shamrock
The Shamrock and the color green are the most famous symbols of St. Patrick's Day

Modern-day St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are characterised by the wearing of the color green and the displaying of the shamrock. The wearing of the shamrock is a particularly interesting phenomenon, and one which is first recorded in the seventeenth century (Hopkin). Traditional past opinion favored the view that the shamrock was worn because Saint Patrick had used it as a metaphor to explain the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) during his conversion of the heathens; however, more sophisticated theories now prevail, whereby it is believed the wearing of the shamrock by the Irish natives was a demonstration of national pride and, as such, was also an act of overt defiance to their English rulers (Hopkin).

The red saltire, the traditional symbol of St. Patrick, was also inextricably linked to political tensions. The saltire became increasingly unpopular and fell out of common use during St Patrick’s Day celebrations after its incorporation into the Union flag of Great Britain and Ireland following the unpopular treaty of 1801. By the eighteenth century, the Irish Nationalist movement adopted green, the colour of St. Patrick, as its own representative color, thereby also establishing green permanently as the traditional color of Ireland.

Alcohol

St. Patrick’s day celebrations—and, indeed, the Irish nation in general—are often stereotyped by the riotous consumption of copious amounts of alcohol. This, however, is not simply a twenty-first-century phenomenon—it seems that the anniversary of St. Patrick’s Day had been characterised by drunkenness for centuries. Church synods are recorded complaining about the Irish tendency to mark religious holidays with prolonged and heavy drinking sessions as far back as the seventeenth century.

St. Patrick's Day
St. Patrick's Day is celebrated by the wearing of green and the consumption of alcohol

Before large-scale, organized events were used to mark the day, St. Patrick’s day was usually celebrated in taverns and was dominated by the seemingly endless drinking of toasts, which inevitably led to widespread drunkenness. The association of St. Patrick’s Day with drunkenness was so widely held at the time that during the Seven Years' War, French troops staged an attack on the English Fort Henry to coincide with the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, knowing that the English army there consisted primarily of Irish recruits, fully expecting them to be incapacitated by alcohol (Hopkin). The English, however, were equally aware of the celebrations, and had allowed the Irish to celebrate the previous day, in anticipation of such a French assault.

Export

The renowned Irish writer Jonathan Swift, most famously the author of Gulliver's Travels, wrote from London in 1713 describing how it appeared that “the whole world was Irish” for the day (Hopkin). This is the first known recording of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations happening outside of Ireland. Little could Swift have imagined the extent to which the celebrations would permeate the world in the centuries that would follow. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw mass Irish emigration to primarily, but not exclusively, America, and particularly to places like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.

It was in Boston that the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day celebration can be found on March 17th, 1737—and in 1762, the first record of the now iconic St. Patrick’s Day parade is found in New York, when a group of Irish military men spontaneously decided to march between taverns with their band and their regimental banners on display (Hopkin). The phenomenon caught on, and is now probably the key defining feature of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in America. America embraced St. Patrick’s Day like no other country on earth, and George Washington himself professed to being a lover of the holiday.

Protestant vs. Catholic

In a nation characterized by religious war and sectarianism, it is perhaps refreshing that St. Patrick’s Day is embraced by both denominations. It is probably a reflection not only of the increasing secularization of society, but also of attempts by both denominations to tailor the story of St. Patrick to fit their own needs. Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day was never an official religious holiday on the Protestant Church’s calendar; however, it was widely celebrated as a secular festival and was often celebrated in conjunction with expressions of loyalty to King William, the crown, and the Protestant interest (McCormack). In a remarkable coincidence, the day took on specific significance in 1789 when the celebrations coincided with the official recovery from madness by King George III. Protestant celebrations, however, tended to be restricted to the upper and middle classes, who would meet at “breakfasts” and drink toasts to the King.

Popular celebrations—and all the popular symbolism that these included, like the shamrock and the color green—were generally the domain of the lower-class Catholics (Hill). Ireland in the eighteenth century was socially stratified, with the upper and middle ruling classes being almost exclusively Protestant, while the lower, oppressed classes contained the Catholic majority. The nature of Ireland’s social and religious divide shaped the celebrations of the Protestant and Catholic denominations, particularly in the traumatic eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Protestants saw St. Patrick’s conversion of the pagans as a glorious example which the Protestant reformers of the seventeenth century had emulated, whilst the Catholics saw a Catholic saint and role model promoting the Catholic interest by means of widespread conversion.

Today

Largely thanks to the American example, Saint Patrick’s Day today is celebrated throughout the world, in places as far afield as Australia, Canada, South America, and Africa. In keeping with the traditions of using the day to assert national pride, it is still noticeable today that Saint Patrick’s Day tends to be celebrated more by Irish people living away from their homeland than it is inside the country itself. Driven perhaps by homesickness, nostalgia, pride, or a sense of loss, Saint Patrick’s Day in the twenty-first century is a boisterous, drink-fuelled celebration of Irishness, which transcends religious denominations and international boundaries and is, without any doubt, Ireland’s most famous export.

-- Posted September 1, 2010

References

Freeman, Phillip. 2004. St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Hill, J.R. “National Festivals, the State, and Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, 1790-1829.” I.H.S., xxiv, no. 93 (May 1984).

Hopkin, Allanah. 1989. The Living Legend of St. Patrick. London, UK: Grafton Books. McCormack, Bridget. 2000. Perceptions of St. Patrick in Eighteenth-Century Ireland. Cornwall, UK: Four Courts Press.