What is Saint Patrick’s Day? Who was Saint Patrick?

Posted Wednesday, Mar 13, 2019

Shamrocks, green rivers, corned-beef and cabbage, pints of stout, and getting pinched. But what is Saint Patrick's Day? In its shortest form, it is the celebration of Irish culture in general; in particular, it’s a celebration of one of three patron saints of Ireland, St. Patrick. Patrick died on March 17 (possibly in 461 AD), so we celebrate on that date each year.

what is saint patrick's dayLike most figures from a couple of millennia ago, St. Patrick has become shrouded in legend and mystique, and some of the facts of his life are a bit fuzzy. Like his birth date: I’ve seen several years as the time of his birth, like 373, 375, 385, 386, 389, or 408 AD. So, let’s just agree that he was probably born in the late 4th century. Surprisingly, he was not born an Irishman but was, instead, born in Roman Britain in the coastal area of Wales.

At the age of sixteen, he was walking along the coast when a band of Irish pirates captured him and took him to Ireland and sold him as a slave. The chieftain to whom he was sold had him work as a shepherd in the north. It was during this time that he wholeheartedly embraced Christianity. (Although his grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon, Patrick was a marginal Christian.)

After 4-6 years, Patrick received a vision/dream in which he was told to flee to the coast where a boat would be waiting to take him away and after which he would serve God. He then traversed to the coast (some claim a 200 mile trek) where he indeed did find a boat, but he had to convince the captain to set sail with him. But set sail they did; they landed after three days, possibly in Britain.

The following days represent one of the episodes that is fuzzy and peppered with mystique. Patrick and the crew wandered for almost a month without supplies. Patrick maintained faith and prayed for provision; a herd of swine miraculously appeared and the men feasted. The men’s respect of Patrick grew, but he somehow fell into slavery again. Exactly where and in what capacity is uncertain. However, this servitude only lasted about two months, after which Patrick finally made his way back home.

He spent some years studying Christianity until he had another vision that called him back to Ireland to proselytize the pagan Druids. Hence, he set sail as a missionary to his former land of slavery, possibly even arriving at the same port from which he had fled years earlier. The druidic people of the area were not welcoming, so he traveled further north to a small island to rest from the journey; to this day, the island is named Inis-Patrick. From there, he ventured into the mainland and began his missionary work, traveling throughout all Ireland.

The inhabitants of Ireland already revered the number three and anything having trichotomies. Hence, they were receptive to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Since the land receives much rain and is lush with vegetation, Patrick found it easiest to illustrate the Trinity with the three-leafed shamrock. Whether that’s the way he really taught the Trinity or not, the shamrock, in its abundance, has become a widely recognized symbol of all things Irish. By way of his journeys through the land, Patrick allegedly Christianized the whole of Ireland- thus driving the druids from the island. And in one of his last miracles, he banished all the snakes into the sea- to this day, no serpents are found anywhere in that country.

In the earlier centuries of the Catholic Church, saints were regional, so Patrick was posthumously given sainthood in Ireland. Later, Catholicism began recognizing saints globally. Thus, Patrick was/is an Irish patron saint, but not a canonized saint. However, he is still one of the most recognized saints owing to the holiday bearing his name. His memorial is celebrated around the world each March 17th, regardless of the “Irishness” of the culture. And because of that, I’m having bangers and mash for lunch today, and I’ll have corned-beef and cabbage this St Patty's Day. Erin go Bragh!

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