St. Patrick’s Day is many things to many people. For some it is a chance to celebrate their Irish heritage and remember their ancestors. For others it is a great day to plan a party and get together with both Irish and non-Irish friends. And of course many of us simply see St. Patrick’s Day as an excuse to drink lots and lots of green beer.
No matter how you choose to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, the history of this holiday is certainly worth examining. The original St. Patrick accomplished much more than ridding Ireland of snakes, and he emerged from his pagan roots to become one of Christianity’s best known figures.
The history of St. Patrick’s Day owes its origins to the Christian church, celebrating St. Patrick’s feast day on what was believed to be the anniversary of his death. Way back in 1737, Irish immigrants living in the US began to celebrate this important holiday, and the first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in 1766 in New York City.
These annual parades soon gained popularity not only with Irish immigrants but other residents of the city as well, and today the St. Patrick’s Day parade is one of the most popular and most well attended events in the city. These days St. Patrick’s Day parades are held throughout the country, with Irish and non-Irish residents alike enjoying the comraderie, the festive floats and of course lots of Irish treats.
Despite the fun and frivolity of the St. Patrick’s Day parades and other celebrations, this holiday has its roots deeply embedded in the world of Christianity. Even today, the country of Ireland celebrates St. Patrick’s Day primarily as a religious holiday. This religious ferver
spread even to the famous Irish pubs, and as late as the 1970’s all pubs in
Ireland were ordered closed on March 17.
As time went by, however, the Irish government began to see the tourist
opportunities of this uniquely Irish holiday. Beginning in the mid-1990’s the
Irish government started a campaign to use the holiday to drive tourism to the
island, and this strategy has worked very well. Close to one million people
visit Ireland each year to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day where the holiday first
got its start.
Pious legend credits St. Patrick with banishing snakes from the island,
though all evidence suggests that post-glacial Ireland never had snakes; one
suggestion is that snakes referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids of
that time and place, as shown for instance on coins minted in Gaul (see Carnutes),
or that it could have referred to beliefs such as Pelagianism, symbolised as
“serpents”. Legend also credits St. Patrick with teaching the Irish about the
concept of the Trinity by showing people the shamrock, a 3-leaved clover, using
it to highlight the Christian belief of 'three divine persons in the one God'
(as opposed to the Arian belief that was popular in Patrick's time).
Some Irish legends involve the Oilliphéist, the Caoránach, and the Copóg
Phádraig. During his evangelising journey back to Ireland from his parent's home
at Birdoswald, he is understood to have carried with him an ash wood walking
stick or staff. He thrust this stick into the ground wherever he was evangelising and at the place now known as Aspatria (ash of Patrick) the message
of the dogma took so long to get through to the people there that the stick had
taken root by the time he was ready to move on.
The 12th century work Acallam na Senórach tells of Patrick being met by two
ancient warriors, Caílte mac Rónáin and Oisín, during his evangelical travels.
The two were once members of Fionn mac Cumhaill's warrior band the Fianna, and
somehow survived to Patrick's time. They traveled with the saint and told him
Saint Patrick's Bell
The National Museum of Dublin posesses a bell first mentioned, acccording to
the Annals of Ulster, in the Book of Cuanu in the year 552. The bell was part of
a collection of "relics of Patrick" robbed from his tomb sixty years after his
death by Colum Cille to be placed in a shrine. The bell is described as "The
Bell of the Testament". The bell is one of three relics described as "precious
minna" (extremely valuable items), of which the other two are described as
Patrick's goblet and "The Angels Gospel". Cille would seem to be under the
direction of an "Angel" for whom he sent the goblet to Down, the bell to Armagh
and kept posession of the Angels Gospel for himself. The name Angels Gospel is
given to the book because it was supposed that Cille received it from the angels
hand. A stir was caused in 1044 when two kings, somehow disputing the bell, went
on spates of prisoner taking and cattle theft. The annals make one more apparent
reference to the bell when chronicling a death, of 1356, "Solomon Ua Mellain,
The Keeper of The Bell of the Testament, protector, rested in Christ." As a
mueseum exhibit, the bell is accompanied by a shrine in which it was encased for
King Donnel O'Loughlin sometime between 1091 and 1105. The shrine is a sparkling
example of fine jewellry. Intricate and delicate Celtic design is worked in gold
and silver over every surface except where encrusted with large precious stones.
Although today, one or two of the jewels are missing as well as some of the
panels of Celtic artwork, full appreciation of the workmanship in the shrine is
still possible and it is kept, along with St. Patrick's Bell, in glittering
condition by the National Museum as a priceless national treasure. The bell
itself is simple in design, hammered into shape with a small handle fixed to the
top with rivets. Originally forged from iron, it has since been coated in
bronze. The shrine is inscribed with three names, including O'Loughlin's. The
rear of the shrine, not intended to be seen, is decorated with crosses while the
handle is decorated with, among other work, celtic designs of birds. The bell is
accredited with working a miracle in 1044 and having been coated in bronze to
shield it from humans eyes for which it would be too holy.
Sainthood and Remembrance
Apostle of Ireland, born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, in Scotland, in the
year 387; died at Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland, 17 March, 493. Some sources say
460 or 461.
He had for his parents Calphurnius and Conchessa. The former belonged to a Roman
family of high rank and held the office of decurio in Gaul or Britain. Conchessa
was a near relative of the great patron of Gaul, St. Martin of Tours. Kilpatrick
still retains many memorials of Saint Patrick, and frequent pilgrimages
continued far into the Middle Ages to perpetuate there the fame of his sanctity
In his sixteenth year, Patrick was carried off into captivity by Irish marauders
and was sold as a slave to a chieftan named Milchu in Dalriada, a territory of
the present county of Antrim in Ireland, where for six years he tended his
master's flocks in the valley of the Braid and on the slopes of Slemish, near
the modern town of Ballymena. He relates in his "Confessio" that during his
captivity while tending the flocks he prayed many times in the day: "the love of
God", he added, "and His fear increased in me more and more, and the faith grew in me, and the
spirit was roused, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred
prayers, and in the night nearly the same, so that whilst in the woods and on
the mountain, even before the dawn, I was roused to prayer and felt no hurt from
it, whether there was snow or ice or rain; nor was there any slothfulness in me,
such as I see now, because the spirit was then fervent within me. "
In the ways of a benign Providence the six years of Patrick's captivity became a
remote preparation for his future apostolate. He acquired a perfect knowledge of
the Celtic tongue in which he would one day announce the glad tidings of
Redemption, and, as his master Milchu was a druidical high priest, he became
familiar with all the details of Druidism from whose bondage he was destined to
liberate the Irish race.
March 17, popularly known as St. Patrick's Day, is believed to be his death
date and is the date celebrated as his feast day. The day became a feast day in
the universal church due to the influence of the Waterford-born Franciscan
scholar Luke Wadding, as a member of the commission for the reform of the
Breviary in the early part of the 17th century.
For most of Christianity's first thousand years, canonisations were done on the
diocesan or regional level. Relatively soon after the death of people considered
to be very holy people, the local Church affirmed that they could be
liturgically celebrated as saints. As a result, St. Patrick has never been
formally canonised by a Pope; nevertheless, various Christian churches declare
that he is a Saint in Heaven (he is in the List of Saints). He is still widely
venerated in Ireland and elsewhere today.
St. Patrick is also venerated in the Orthodox Church, especially among
English-speaking Orthodox Christians living in the United Kingdom and the
Republic of Ireland and in North America. There are Orthodox icons dedicated to