March is a special month for Ireland. Right in the middle of it, on the 17th of March every year, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Not only does this mean a day off work for everyone (the biggest advantage for most people), but it’s also a day dedicated to celebrating our culture, heritage, traditions, and of course for doing fun activities with family and friends. Unlike in other countries around the world with a large Irish ex-pat population, In Ireland the celebrations surrounding St. Patrick’s Day last longer than just one day – in most cases it calls for a week- long festival of music, dancing, parades, fair grounds, and just a little bit of partying. With all that fun to be had it can be easy to forget the real reason behind the holiday; honouring Ireland’s patron saint, Patrick. But who was he? Read on to find out…
Who was Saint Patrick, really?
Saint Patrick was a Christian missionary who lived in the 5th century AD (the exact dates are unknown), best known for bringing Christianity to the people of Ireland. He was not, in fact, Irish by birth. Believe it or not, he hailed from Britain – although the exact location of his birth and childhood on that rather large island is unknown. His father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest, so it’s no real surprise that Patrick eventually ended up as a missionary. In short, nothing else is known about Patrick’s early years. At the tender age of sixteen he was captured by a group of Irish pirates, so at some point he must have ended up along the Western coast of Britain. The pirates brought him back across the water where he was held captive and enslaved, working as a shepherd. In The Confession of Saint Patrick, he wrote that the six years he spent in captivity, spending great lengths of time outdoors, was critical in forming his spirituality. He spent much of the time praying and soon afterwards converted to Christianity.
By his sixth year of captivity Patrick was so in touch with his spiritual side that one day he heard a voice telling him he would soon be able to go home to his family, and later the same voice told him the ship that would take him back was waiting for him. He fled from his master and escaped to a port (allegedly some two hundred miles away, which would have placed him somewhere in the midlands), where there was a ship just as the voice said there would be. He persuaded the captain to let him on and they set sail for Britain, landing three days later. Many versions of the story of Patrick’s life state that from the coast, Patrick led the crew through wilderness for 28 days. Searching for the path that would take them to their homes and families, they were almost at the point of starvation, until a herd of wild boar came along. Patrick put this down to God intervening, and urged the men to keep their faith in God, which they did. After he returned home to his family, keeping this encounter and the voices he had heard as a shepherd in mind, Patrick had decided that the only life path for him was to study Christianity officially.
Saint Patrick’s work in Ireland
A few years after returning to Britain, Patrick had a vision. He saw a man coming from Ireland by the name of Victorius, carrying letters. The heading of the first letter was ‘The Voice of the Irish’, and it told him that all of Ireland was appealing to him to come and walk among them. At once, Patrick left his home to return to Ireland again, this time as a Christian missionary. According to legend, he landed in county Wicklow at the mouth of the river Vartry, but was not welcomed by the locals and had to go further north. After resting on the islands off the coast of Skerries in north Dublin, he set off with his first follower – Benin, son of the local chieftain Secsnen. He travelled around the country doing what all missionaries of the time did; in particular, baptising thousands of people, converting the rich men and women to Christianity (including sons of kings), organising Christian communities and ordaining priests to oversee them, and generally teaching people about the benefits of religion. The difference between him and other missionaries, however, is that there was nobody else in Ireland at the time. Naturally, he was treated like a prophet.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Patrick however, and it was a long road to sainthood. As a foreigner and a former slave, people were instinctually weary of him. He defied etiquette and refused to accept gifts from kings and noblemen, being a non-materialistic missionary, and this ostrascised him from the usual ties of kinship and alliances. He was also not covered by any sort of legal protection under the laws in place at the time. Of course, it’s impossible to please everyone in any aspect of life, and being a missionary was no different; there were plenty of people who were hostile to Patrick and his work, alarmed by people’s unquestioning faith in him and the God he preached about, and his ever growing band of followers. In one of his letters written in later life, known as ‘The Declaration’, Patrick vaguely recounts his arguments for charges brought against him by fellow Christians at a trial. Although he doesn’t mention what exactly he was on trial for, he refutes claims that he accepted gifts from wealthy women and payment for his religious services, and states that in fact he paid for many gifts to noblemen and provided for many of his followers. Many have surmised from this information that he was charged with some sort of financial embezzlement or accused of coming to Ireland for personal gain alone.
Another letter written by Patrick, the ‘Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus’, shows just how much of an influence he had during his time in Ireland. Coroticus was likely a British Roman who had come to Ireland. Patrick claims that he had raided various places in Ireland and taken some of his followers as slaves, and announces his ex-communication from the church. It is entirely possible that this letter came first, and the ‘declaration’ letter was an attempt to undo damage caused by a counter attack from Coroticus and his followers. Eventually Patrick proved his naysayers wrong however, and became Archbishop of Armagh, arguably the most powerful religious position in the country at the time.
Saint Patrick’s teachings, myths and legends
There are plenty of myths, legends, and accepted facts about things Saint Patrick said or did throughout his life and his work in Ireland. Some are true, some are false, and some are downright ridiculous! All of them however, are regularly told around St. Patrick’s Day and taught to children in Irish schools.
The shamrock: The most famous legend attributed to St. Patrick involves the humble shamrock. This tiny green plant isn’t Ireland’s unofficial national symbol for nothing; Patrick used it to teach his followers about the concept of the holy trinity. Ireland’s people at the time were uneducated and illiterate, so to explain the idea of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit being separate but also part of the same God, he used the shamrock. With its three separate leaves still part of the main plant, it was the perfect analogy, and it was also held in high regard from pagan days, when it was a sacred plant.
The snakes: Legend has it that Saint Patrick banished all of the snakes from Ireland. During a 40-day fast on top of a hill, some snakes were stupid enough to try and attack him, so he chased them into the sea and they never came back. Unfortunately, this one has no basis whatsoever in historical fact. Ireland has never been inhabited by any kind of snake; after the last Ice Age the land that was previously connected to mainland Europe became two islands; Ireland and Britain, and the snakes were never able to successfully migrate across the water.
The Caoranach: The Caoranach was a mythological monster who was the mother of demons and devils, said to take the form of a female woman. She was said to be following closely behind St. Patrick for some time until he banished her to Lough Derg, where she was trapped on a small island in the centre of the lake. This lake is still known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory today. A similar story is that of the Oillipheist, a dragon-like monster that cuts the route of the River Shannon when it hears that Patrick wants to banish it.
Saint Patrick’s Day
Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated on the 17th March as this is the accepted death of the man’s death. He was allegedly buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, county Down, alongside Ireland’s other two patron saints, Brigid and Columba – however, this has never been proven. Sixty years after his death Colum Cille removed some relics from Patrick’s burial apparently under the guidance of an angel; they were a bell, a goblet and the ‘Angel’s Gospel’, and he sent the bell to Armagh, the goblet to Down, and kept the gospel for himself. In any case, the 17th of March seems to have been universally accepted as the date of his death and is now a day of celebration not just in Ireland but in many other countries around the world where Irish communities have grown. While in decades past celebrations were strictly limited to a church mass and a break from Lent, which typically starts a few weeks before the date, it is now an international festival that drawers visitors from all over the world to Ireland for a few days every year.