On St. Patrick’s Day—Saturday, March 17—millions of people will don green and celebrate the Irish in, and around, them with parades, good cheer, and perhaps a pint of beer.
But few St. Patrick’s Day revelers have a clue about St. Patrick, the man, according to the author of St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography.
“The modern celebration of St. Patrick’s Day really has almost nothing to do with the real man,” said classics professor Philip Freeman of Luther College in Iowa.
Who Was the Man Behind St. Patrick’s Day?
The real St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish.
He was born in Britain around A.D. 390 to an aristocratic Christian family with a townhouse, a country villa, and plenty of slaves.
What’s more, Patrick professed no interest in Christianity as a young boy.
At 16, Patrick’s world turned.
He was kidnapped and sent overseas to tend sheep as a slave in the chilly, mountainous countryside of Ireland for seven years.
“It was just horrible for him,” Freeman said. “But he got a religious conversion while he was there and became a very deeply believing Christian.”
While in Ireland, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family.
The voice then told him to go back to Ireland.
“He gets ordained as a priest from a bishop and goes back and spends the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity,” Freeman said.
Patrick’s work in Ireland was tough—he was constantly beaten by thugs, harassed by the Irish royalty, and admonished by his British superiors.
After he died on March 17, 461, Patrick was largely forgotten.
But slowly, stories grew up around Patrick. Centuries later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland, Freeman noted.
No Snakes in Ireland
The St. Patrick mythology includes the claim that he banished snakes from Ireland.
It’s true no snakes exist on the island today, Freeman said. But they never did.
Ireland, after all, is surrounded by icy ocean waters—much too cold to allow snakes to migrate from Britain or anywhere else.
But since snakes often represent evil in literature, “when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland and brought in a new age,” Freeman said.
St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations: 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 – the commercial side – was basically invented in America by Irish-Americans,” Freeman 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,” Freeman 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.
What does Saint Patrick’s Day mean for Catholic young people?
St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration that holds a lot of spiritual meaning for Catholic teens. First, the holiday is a traditional day for spiritual renewal. It is a day that Catholics can use to reflect on their spiritual walk and reflect on their relationship with God. St. Patrick found that renewal, because he considered himself a pagan before he became a slave and discovered his relationship with God through prayer.
Second, Catholics can use the time to pray for missionaries around the world and consider the calling on their lives to become missionaries either in their schools or in other areas of the world. St. Patrick was adept at speaking and converting pagans in Ireland, and he faced many trials due to his mission work. Missionaries today face many of the same trials, and need the prayers of Christians near and far.
HAPPY SAINT PATRICK’S DAY TO YOU ALL!