March 17, 2017: Who Was St. Patrick?

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A Brief History

On March 17, 2017, much of the English speaking world celebrates St. Patrick’s Day in honor of the English (possibly of Roman descent) missionary and Bishop that brought Christianity to much of Ireland. Recognized as a saint by the Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches, St. Patrick is remembered on March 17 as the supposed day of his death, although his birth and death dates are lost to history, his life most likely having occurred during the 5th Century A.D..

Digging Deeper

Born in England of English and probably Roman descent sometime in the 5th Century, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates as a teen and taken to Ireland where he was held as a slave tending to domestic animals. Escaping after 6 years in captivity, Patrick managed to get back to his family, and then entered the clergy. Patrick’s father had been a Deacon in the Church and his grandfather a priest, so there was a family tradition of service to the Church. (At that time there was only the Catholic Church among Christians in Britain.)  Oddly enough, Patrick was not a believer or religious as a boy, but his experience as a slave awakened spirituality in him. It is believed Patrick studied religion in France.

After being ordained a Catholic priest, Patrick followed his calling to Ireland where he did missionary work, traveling to find a locality that was accepting of him and his mission. Apparently charismatic and popular, Patrick was allegedly bestowed with gifts from rich benefactors, gaining status as a Bishop along the way. His popularity and financial gain drew the ire of fellow Christian clerics, and Patrick was put on trial for unknown financial irregularities. Contrary to such allegations, Patrick is said to have refused gifts from Kings and not taken payment for performing baptisms and ordaining priests. He claimed to have converted thousands of people to Christianity, among them Kings and their families. Patrick established parishes all over Ireland, ordained priests, created nunneries, and encountered hardships such as being beaten and robbed as well as possibly being held captive for 60 days for unknown reasons.

Circumstances of the death of Patrick are unknown, and some historians and theologians hypothesize that there were actually 2 separate men that are attributed to the works of St. Patrick. Historical records contemporaneous with his life are extremely limited, and what has been written about him mostly started 200 years after his death. Miracles attributed to St. Patrick include the well known banishing of all snakes from Ireland, but the best science can deduce is that there never have been snakes in Ireland, at least since the last Ice Age. No record or physical evidence of snakes in Ireland exists. Another St. Patrick miracle is his walking stick sprouting into a living tree, and another tale describes his use of the Shamrock, a 3 leaf clover, as an analogy to the Holy Trinity. (Irish pre-Christian religion had several triple God sets of beliefs, but no prior history of veneration of Shamrocks in Ireland is known.) Finally, Patrick amazed his followers by speaking with historic Irish ancestors. He is supposedly buried in Downpatrick with a marked tomb designating his burial place.

The reputed burial place of Saint Patrick in Downpatrick

Patrick was made a Saint in the early 17th Century and is a patron of numerous countries and places other than Ireland. Numerous churches and other places are named in his honor, and many places celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with parades and other festivities. Somehow Corned Beef and Cabbage has become a traditional St. Patrick’s Day dinner in the United States, although the same cannot be said for Ireland! Green beer is a common sight at places celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, and in Chicago the people dye the Chicago River green for the day. Canadians also celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, especially in Montreal, which features a Shamrock on its city’s flag. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have taken some criticism over excessive drinking of alcohol, and parades and other activities have been assailed over exclusion of Gay Pride types of displays. Some sports teams have special jerseys or uniforms they wear for St. Patrick’s Day, and many people wear the color green to honor St. Patrick on his special day.

Celebrations in Buenos Aires centre on Reconquista street.

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? If so, how? Please share your St. Patrick stories with us in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Barth, Edna. Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick’s Day Symbols. Sandpiper, 2010.

Cronin, Mike; Adair, Daryl. The Wearing of the Green: A History of St Patrick’s Day. Routledge, 2002.

Hegarty, Neil.  Story of Ireland.  Ebury Publishing, 2012.

The featured image in this article, a page from a booklet published to mark the first parade of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Krewe of Babylon, is in the public domain in the United States of America, because it was published in the United States between 1925 and 1977 without a copyright notice. See Commons:Hirtle chart for further explanation. 

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.