You’ve heard, I suppose, long ago,
How the snakes in a manner most antic,
He marched to the County Mayo,
And trundled them into th’Atlantic. Hence not to use water for drink
The people of Ireland determine With mighty good reason, I think,
Since St Patrick has filled it with vermin,
And vipers and other such stuff. – WILLIAM MAGINN
Who was St. Patrick
In roughly 430 AD, a young Roman living in Britain, named Patricius, was wandering about his father’s lands when a fleet of 50 currachs (longboats) weaved its way toward the shore. These boats were helmed by Irish Raiders, whose quickly came in, burned down the village, and whisked young Patricius along with other villagers away. At the time there was no Roman army to protect them (Roman legions had long since deserted Britain to protect Rome from barbarian invasions).
After being sold off to a goat herder (other accounts say a Warrior Chief), Patricius spent the next six years of his life as slave, living in conditions with little to no food and water, and working long grueling days. It was here in his time of misery where he turned to God. Upon his sixth year in captivity, Patricius, received a vision/dream in which an unknown man named Victorious came to him with a letter that said “a ship is waiting for you 200 miles away.” Desperate for his freedom, Patrick, escaped from his captor, and fled 200 miles, where he found a group of trader ships.
Little is known about Patrick’s life upon returning to his family in Britain. But after a number of years, Victorious once again appeared to Patrick and once again gives him a letter from Ireland. This one states “We appeal to you holy servant boy to come and walk among us.” Patrick, who was now a member of the Church, interpreted this as his calling to become a missionary to Ireland. After convincing his Bishop to allow him to go, Patrick began the mission of converting the pagans of Ireland to Christianity.
There are several tall tales about Patrick’s conversion of Ireland. One of them claims that the absence of snakes in Ireland gave rise to the legend that they had all been banished by St. Patrick chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill (although there has been several scientific claims that demonstrate that Ireland is not a conducive environment for snakes to live). Because of this legend you will typically see St. Patrick depicted with the staff of the prophet Moses (which is taking from the story in Exodus 7:8–7:13, where Moses and Aaron use their staffs in their struggle with Pharaoh’s sorcerers, the staffs of each side morphing into snakes. Aaron’s snake-staff prevails by consuming the other snakes). Another legend has him subverting the druid/pagan concept that a shamrock represented death and rebirth through the goddesses Brigid, Ériu, and the Morrigan and replacing it with a metaphor for the holy trinity.
What is known, from the only two published works of St. Patrick, Confessio (which you can find the eBook here) and Declaration, is that he had a very methodical plan when it came to converting Ireland. Now, at the time, Ireland was not an organized whole, but rather a collection of kingdoms, with each kingdom being ruled over by a king. Patrick’s theory was that if he could convert the king then the rest of the kingdom would fall in line by him. So Patrick would travel from kingdom to kingdom and if the kingdom would achieve enough converts then he would build a church and leave local “disciples” in charge as ordained ministers. He would also take with him any princes or princesses of a converted kingdom for education and fostering. In this way, Patrick made his way through Ireland, and despite the Druids hold over the religion of the land, he managed to almost fully convert the island. And while the conversion of Ireland was his most important contribution, he also managed to end slavery on the island
From that point on St. Patrick would become a national staple of Ireland, and as soon as 797 AD, the people of Ireland began to celebrate the day of his death, March 17th.
From St. Patrick to Modern St. Patrick’s Day
So how did we go from a guy who spread Christianity to a pagan/heathen/barbarian island to the modern secular holiday that we know enjoy? That, like Patrick’s ancestry, can be traced back to Britain. In the mid-19th century, Britain, ruled over the lands of Great Britain with an iron-fist. One nation that they were particularly hard on was the Irish.
In the 19th century, Britain only allowed the Irish to grow potatoes for consumable goods. Everything else (like wheat, for instance) was imported back to Britain. So during the late 1840s to 1850s, when the Great Potato Famine, struck Ireland, it devastated the nations food supply. Hungry and desperate, most of the people struck for opportunity in the United States. But, at the time, being Irish was seen as stigma (spurred on by British media) and the average Irish American spent most of their time being harassed. Seeking a common ground to find a source of nationalism and cultural identity, many Irish Americans began to use St. Patrick’s Day to commemorate their past and to unite as culture. While no formal construct was created, in places such as New York City, Irishmen would hold speeches and debates, pubs would contain celebrations and families would cook authentic Irish meals. From that point on and owing to a let up on stigmatizing Irish, St. Patrick’s Day would grow into a secular holiday that celebrates the culture and history of Ireland.
Want to find out more on St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland, and Irish history and customs? If your answer is yes, stop by the Library in March and check our display of St. Patrick’s Day or check out some of these books listed below.