Shamrocks, leprechauns and gallons and gallons of Guinness must mean it’s almost St. Patrick’s Day. But who was St. Patrick and why has this Saint’s day become so popular?
Well it may surprise you to hear that St. Patrick (or Padraig to use the Irish spelling) wasn’t actually irish. He’s believed to have been born to Roman parents, in Scotland or Wales, in the 5th century AD. It is not known if his family were Celtic or from modern-day Italy. St. Patrick penned two surviving documents writing in Latin and signing his name ‘Patricius’, but it is thought by some his birth name was Maewyn Succat. At the age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped in a raid by pirates and taken to Ireland and sold into slavery. For six years, he herded sheep on Slemish, historically called Slieve Mish, a small mountain in County Antrim. It lies a few miles east of Ballymena, in the townland of Carnstroan., until he managed to escape and flee Ireland. One night he had a vision a few years after returning home. Acting on his vision, Patrick decided to dedicate his life to converting people to Christianity. Saint Germanus of Auxerre, a bishop of the Western Church, ordained him to the priesthood and he returned to Ireland and began to spread his message. Today St. Patrick is regarded as the founder of Christianity in Ireland.
On his return around about 432 he set about converting the pagan Irish to Christianity. He founded schools, churches, and monasteries throughout the country but it wasn’t all plain sailing for Patrick and his life was littered with periods of imprisonment when his teachings upset local chieftains or Celtic Druids. For twenty years he travelled the length and breadth of the island, baptising people as he went. By the time of his death on the 17th March 461 he had left behind an island of Christians. It is thought his final resting place is at the Hill of Down where his gravestone is now situated. This area has historically been a centre of prayer and worship for thousands of years. Muirchu, who wrote of St Patrick’s soon after his death, described St Patrick’s body being brought to his burial place and on the site on which a Church would be built. A memorial stone of Mourne Mountain Granite marks the spot of his burial. He is buried alongside Saint Brigid and Saint Columba.
However, it may surprise you to learn that he was never canonized as Saint by the Catholic Church. Nothing dodgy it just because of the time he lived in there was no formal canonization process. Calling him Saint Patrick caught on and stuck over time due to his popular acclaim. In 1631 the Catholic Church made the 17th March a feast honoring the Patron Saint of Ireland. Because St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, it became a day for Catholics to have a day off from the abstinent demands of the weeks leading up to Easter. It is believed that St. Patrick’s Day was first celebrated back in the 17th century. Held to mark St. Patrick’s death, it was a humble, religious celebration up until the 1920’s . An annual military parade started in Dublin in 1931, but the day remained mainly a time for religious reflection, rather than painting yourself green and wearing a funny hat. Bars were even closed on St. Patrick’s Day right up until the 1960’s.
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh! – St. Patrick’s Day blessing upon you
(ban-ock-tee na fay-lah paw-rig ur-iv
Across the broad Atlantic, it was a different matter. there St. Patrick’s Day became a day for Irish immigrants and their children to celebrate their heritage. By the mid-19th century, parades and festivities were held right across the United States. According to author Mike Cronin,
“St. Patrick’s Day was a public declaration of hybrid identity – a belief in the future of Ireland as a nation free from British rule, and a strict adherence to the values and liberties that the United States offered them.”
Mike McCormack, national historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians says
“Many who were forced to leave Ireland during the Great Hunger brought a lot of memories, but they didn’t have their country, so it was a celebration of being Irish, but there was also a bit of defiance because of the bigotry against them.”
Boston, with its massive Irish population, held the first St. Patrick’s parade in 1737, with New York City following suit 25 years later. Today, along with Chicago which is famed for turning its river green since 1962, these cities are the most famous for its celebrations. In the 20th century, corporations started to pay attention, and figure out how to take advantage of the celebrations. Pretty soon, t-shirts with shamrocks, inflatable bottles of Guinness (and them hats!), green McDonalds milk shakes, started to become synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day, initially in America but nowadays wherever St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated.
Though beware anyone who would tell you how to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and your Irish heritage. Dust off the auld Eire/GAA/Celtic top or even that bloody leprechaun outfit and be proud of your roots if you got ’em. If you ain’t got them then come join us anyway everyone is welcome at this hooley. If possible try and spend some of the day in the company of family and elder members of our community and raise a glass, whatever your poison, to the sky for those who you love who are no longer here with us. Sláinte.