St. Patrick is a real historical person, a holy man who accomplished great feats around which legends have sprung. Patrick is also the Christian or given name to a man born Maewyn Succat in 4th century (c. A.D. 385) Roman controlled Britain. Probably born in Wales, possibly England or southern Scotland, he was the son of Calpurnius a Roman-British officer. When pirates landed in south Wales they kidnapped Patrick at the age of 16 and sold him into slavery to an Irish king Niall. Niall’s son Laoghaire would later grant Patrick unmolested access to his land to spread the Gospel, even against the advice and counsel of Druid priests. But for now young Patrick was just a slave, and he remained in condition of servitude for six years working as a shepherd. It was on a lonely mountainside tending sheep, that St. Patrick found religion, or one might say his religion found him—for although his parents had been Christian, Patrick did not consider himself to be a Christian before his captivity.
In a dream one night he heard the voice of God telling him that his ship was ready, that he should walk 200 miles and there find a vessel that would convey him away. He got up and literally walked off the mountainside to freedom. He walked 200 miles to Wexford and found a boat there headed for Britain. The captain at first turned him away, but as he walked St. Patrick prayed until the captain inexplicably changed his mind. The crew called out to Patrick to come aboard, and the boat made his escape to Britain and then onto the northern coast of Gaul in France. Patrick joined a monastery there and studied under St. Germain, the bishop of Auzerre. In a subsequent prophetic dream, he heard “the Voice of the Irish” calling him to come back and save them. From that day, he knew the mission God had appointed for him to accomplish: the conversion of the Irish to Christianity.
He was not the first chosen by the Pope, however, for that mission. Patrick was not as polished as other priests, having not received the full measure of formal education before being kidnapped. While other priests tried with limited success therefore, Patrick devoted himself to studies at the monastery and awaited a time of God’s choosing. In 432 Pope Celetine finally made him a bishop and sent him on the mission to Ireland. Taking 25 followers, he embarked and spent the first winter under kindly patronage of a local landowner and early convert. In the spring on a warm sunny day, St. Patrick approached King Laoghaire. Patrick’s composure and confidence impressed the king but the Druids were incensed. They tempted St. Patrick, asking whether his god would create snow. To everyone’s astonishment it began to snow, the blankets cascading down upon everyone until St. Patrick made the sign of the cross—and immediately the snow ceased and the sun returned.
A lot of what we know about St. Patrick comes from his Confessio, an autobiography that tells his spiritual journey; and Epistola, which denounces the British mistreatment of Irish Christians. In Ireland he journeyed far and wide, preaching, baptizing, establishing schools and churches and monasteries with an untiring zeal. For nearly thirty years he did this until he had literally converted the entire Emerald Isle to orthodox Catholicism, winning Hibernia/Erin/ a.k.a. Ireland for Christ. In so doing, it is said that he drove all the snakes from Ireland into the sea. But this story is allegorical, because the snake was a pagan symbol regarded as sacred by the Druids. St. Patrick thus drove paganism out of Ireland and into the sea of destruction. Part of what made him successful was his ability to win over nobility, and as he converted the princes and warrior chiefs, their tribesmen followed. St. Patrick was just as successful, however, by relating to the common people. When tribesmen had trouble understanding the hard concept of the Trinity and how one God could be a triune Person (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), St. Patrick plucked a shamrock from the ground and showed how the three-leaf clover had a single stem, metaphorically one God in three Persons. They understood and believed, and the shamrock became a revered symbol of Ireland from that time.
St. Patrick died in A.D. 461 on March 17th and that’s why we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on that date. It was originally and exclusively a Catholic holy day for hundreds of years, and that’s the way it stood until it became a public holiday in Ireland in 1903. Indeed, church calendars of the Roman Catholic Church and Church of Ireland move the date for commemorating St. Patrick’s if the date falls within Holy Week. In 1940 for instance, St. Patrick’s Day moved to April 3rd to avoid coinciding with Palm Sunday. The church also generally lifts prohibitions during the fasting season of Lent to allow celebration and eating of meat. Pubs in Ireland, however, were traditionally closed. This changed during the 1970s, as the government wanted to encourage tourism and St. Patrick’s Day continued to morph into a general appreciation of Irish culture and all things Irish. There is amazing irony in the fact that, if and as secular celebrations overindulge in alcohol and revelry, St. Patrick’s Day parties come to resemble the drunken festival of Bacchanalia—a pagan rite in honor of the god Bacchus once held on March 17th before St. Patrick’s Day replaced it.
In America the first public observance of St. Patrick’s was by Irish immigrants in Colonial Boston in 1737. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade marched through the streets of New York City in 1762. At the time, the parade was mostly made up of Irish soldiers serving in the English army. George Washington facilitated observance of St. Patrick’s Day amongst Irish troops serving in the Revolutionary Army. Irish traditionally ate cabbage and Irish bacon on that day, but in America they began substituting corned beef for bacon—a delicious and much cheaper alternative they learned about from their Jewish neighbors in the Nineteenth Century.
Today over 100 U.S. cities have St. Patrick’s Day parades. Some cities paint the traffic stripe of their parade routes green. Chicago and Indianapolis dye their main river canals green. Savannah dyes the downtown city fountains green. If you do imbibe, chances are the beer will probably be dyed green; and green popcorn is not unheard of in movie theaters. Of course, appropriate colors for St. Patrick’s Day are the orange and green of the Irish flag, but green is nearly obligatory these days. Leave it to schoolchildren to turn every American Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, by that most persuasive custom of pinching anyone who doesn’t wear it.