Who Was the Real St. Patrick?
There are many legends and traditions associated with St. Patrick's Day. Who was the real St. Patrick?
St. Patrick was not actually Irish. he was born around 373 A.D. in the British Isles near the modern city of Dumbarton in Scotland. His real name was Maewyn Succat. He took the name of Patrick, or Patricius, meaning "well-born" in Latin, after he became a priest.
During Patrick's boyhood, the Roman empire was near collapse and too weak to defend its holdings in distant lands. Britain became easy prey for raiders, including those who crossed the Irish sea from the land known as Hibernia or Ireland. When Patrick was sixteen, he was seized by raiders and carried off to Ireland.
Most of what is known about St. Patrick comes from his own Confession, written in his old age. In his Confession he wrote about his capture:
As a youth, nay, almost as a boy not able to speak, I was taken captive ... I was like a stone lying in the deep mire; and He that is mighty came and in His mercy lifted me up, and raised me aloft ... And therefore I ought to cry out aloud and so also render something to the Lord for His great benefits here and in eternity -- benefits which the mind of men is unable to appraise.
After Patrick was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave by an Irish chieftain named Niall, he was sold to another chieftain in northern Ireland. Much of Patrick's time was spend alone on the slopes of Slemish Mountain, tending his master's flocks of sheep. During the long, lonely hours in the fields and hills of Ireland, Patrick found comfort in praying. In his Confession he wrote:
... every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed -- the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; ... and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me -- as now I see, because the spirit within me was fervent.
Six years passed slowly by. Then in a dream, Patrick heard a voice saying, "Thy ship is ready for thee." This was God's way, he felt, of telling him to run away.
That night he fled. Assured God was leading him, Patrick plunged through the bogs and scaled the mountains which separated him from the sea. He escaped Ireland by ship, but God would call him back years later. Patrick had escaped his boyhood enslavement in Ireland only to hear the call of God as a man to return. He was being called on, he felt, to convert the Irish to Christianity. In his Confession Patrick wrote:
I saw a man named Victoricus, coming from Ireland with countless letters. He game me one of them and I read the opening words which were: The voice of the Irish ... I thought at the same moment I heard their voice: 'We beg you, young man, come and walk among us once more.'
And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to them according to their cry.
... they call me most unmistakably with words which I heard but could not understand, except that ... He spoke thus: 'He that has laid down His life for thee, it is He that speaketh in thee;' and so I awoke full of joy.
When Patrick began his mission about 430 A.D., Ireland was gripped by paganism, Idolatry prevailed and the Irish knew nothing of Jesus. Patrick decided to go first to the pagan chieftain or king who had enslaved him as a boy. Rather than be put to shame by a former slave, the king set fire to his house and threw himself into the flames.
Patrick then set out for Tara, the seat of the high king of Ireland. When Patrick arrived, Tara was filled with many local kings and druids who were attending the pagan feast of Beltine which coincided with Easter that year. Patrick encamped in the full view of the castle to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ.
On the eve of the festival it was the custom, upon penalty of death, that the high king should light the first bonfire before any others in the land. Patrick, however, had kindled a great fire which gleamed through the darkness. Patrick was summoned before the king. The confrontation which followed is as amazing as Elijah's victory over the prophets of Baal.
Patrick stood and called, May God arise and His enemies be scattered. Darkness fell on the camp. Confused guards began to attack one another. The ground shook and the next day, Easter, a broken king knelt before God's servant. This confrontation between Patrick's God and demonic forces marked the beginning of a thirty-year mission to Ireland.
Patrick traveled the roads and forded the rivers of Ireland for 30 years to see men and women "reborn in God' and come to know the Christ he loved so much. Patrick wrote in his Confession:
We ought to fish well and diligently, as our Lord exhorts. Hence, we spread our nets so that a great multitude and throng might be caught for God.
By the time of his death, Patrick had baptized tens of thousands and established hundreds of churches throughout Ireland. Danger and hardship remained his constant companions. Twice he was imprisoned, but he was not discouraged. He wrote in his Confession:
Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God Almighty who rules everywhere.
Within a century this once pagan land became predominately Christian, possessing such a vigorous faith that Ireland in turn sent missionaries to Scotland, England, Germany and Belgium.
As an old man, Patrick looked back in awe:
Those who never had knowledge of God but worshipped idols ... have now become ... sons of God.
The old saint died in his beloved Ireland on March 17th, 460 A.D. The land that once enslaved him, had now been set fr
One traditional symbol of Saint Patrick's Day is the Shamrock.
"Shamrock" is the common name for several different kinds of three-leafed clovers native to Ireland.
The shamrock was chosen Ireland's national emblem because of the legend that St. Patrick had used it to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is the idea that God is really three-in-one: The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.
Patrick demonstrated the meaning of the Three-in-One by picking a shamrock from the grass growing at his feet and showing it to his listeners. He told them that just as the shamrock is one leaf with three parts, God is one entity with three Persons.
The Irish have considered shamrocks as good-luck symbols since earliest times, and today people of many other nationalities also believe they bring good luck.
St. Patrick's Day: Made in America?
Until the 1970s, St. Patrick's Day in Ireland was a minor religious holiday. A priest would acknowledge the feast day, and families would celebrate with a big meal, but that was about it.
"St. Patrick's Day was basically invented in America by Irish-Americans," Freeman said.
Timothy Meagher is an expert on Irish-American history at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
He said Irish charitable organizations originally celebrated St. Patrick's Day with banquets in places such as Boston, Massachusetts; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina.
Eighteenth-century Irish soldiers fighting with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War held the first St. Patrick's Day parades. Some soldiers, for example, marched through New York City in 1762 to reconnect with their Irish roots.
Other parades followed in the years and decades after, including well-known celebrations in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, primarily for flourishing Irish immigrant communities.
"It becomes a way to honor the saint but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity," Meagher said.
Wearing Green Clothes, Dyeing River Green
Sometime in the 19th century, as St. Patrick's Day parades were flourishing, wearing the color green became a show of commitment to Ireland, Meagher said.
In 1962 the show of solidarity took a spectacular turn in Chicago when the city decided to dye a portion of the Chicago River green.
The tradition started when parade organizer Steve Bailey, head of a plumbers' union, noticed how a dye used to detect river pollution had stained a colleague's overalls a brilliant green, according to greenchicagoriver.com.
Why not, Bailey thought, turn the river green on St. Patrick's Day? So began the tradition.
The environmental impact of the dye is minimal compared with sources of pollution such as bacteria from sewage-treatment plants, said Margaret Frisbie, the executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Chicago River.
Her group focuses instead on turning the Chicago River into a well-known habitat full of fish, herons, turtles, and beavers.
If the river becomes a wildlife haven, the thinking goes, Chicagoans won't want to dye their river green.
"Our hope is that, as the river continues to improve, ultimately people can get excited about celebrating St. Patrick's Day different ways," she said.
(Related: "St. Patrick's Day Fast Facts: Beyond the Blarney.")
Pint of Guinness
On any given day 5.5 million pints of Guinness, the famous Irish stout, are consumed around the world.
On St. Patrick's Day, that number more than doubles to 13 million pints, said Beth Davies Ryan, global corporate relations director of Guinness.
"Historically speaking, a lot of Irish immigrants came to the United States and brought with them lots of customs and traditions, one of them being Guinness," she said.
Today, the U.S. tradition of St. Patrick's Day parades, packed pubs, and green silliness has invaded Ireland with full force, noted Freeman, the classics professor.
The country, he noted, figured out the popularity of St. Patrick's Day was a good way to boost spring tourism.
"Like anybody else," he said, "they can take advantage of a good opportunity."