It’s that time of year: everyone wants to be Irish. As an Irish-American*, I’m okay with that. Everyone wants to eat soda bread and green food. I’m okay with that too. Everyone wants to get drunk in the name of Ireland because that’s the “Irish” thing to do. That? Eh. I imbibe as much as the rest of them on St. Patrick’s Day, but for the record: that sort of celebration originated in the United States. Just so you know.
Most people know that St. Patrick banished snakes for Ireland, and that he’s (one of) the patron saints of the country. This isn’t to discount Brigid and Columcille, of course, but they aren’t as well known. Beyond the snake bit, people that celebrate St. Patrick’s Day don’t know as much about the guy they all drink to.
So here goes, a quick primer on the life and death of St. Patrick. With most Irish history, it’s a mix of folklore, fact and fiction. But that’s the beauty of the Irish: they’re damn good storytellers.
1) He’s not Irish. St. Patrick escaped Ireland as a slave (after having been taken from England) because a voice told him to. He traveled a long freaking way to get to a port and conned his way onto a ship leaving the Emerald Isle. During this trip, he asked God to provide sustenance to him and his fellow travelers, and was answered with a stampede of pigs.
2) In his dreams, he heard the voices of Ireland calling out to him and asking him to return. He did make his way back when the Pope sent him as an emissary after his first emissary never made it there**, and he claimed that in his dreams, he heard the voices of Ireland begging him to return.
3) That St. Patrick was able to spread Christianity across the country was a feat in and of itself. At this time, Ireland was nowhere near unified; it was a land full of tribes and kings, all of whom could have made the spread of a single religion difficult. He was able to start the process in his time, and his successors continued.
4) St. Patrick’s behavior as a bishop went against the grain. He didn’t accept gifts from kings, or payment for his services, which left him without alliances and therefore vulnerable to attack. According to St. Patrick himself, he was robbed, beaten and put in chains on one occasion.
5) Evidence suggests that there were never any snakes in Ireland for St. Patrick to banish, although the legends about him using the Shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the Irish people have not been refuted.
6) St. Patrick’s final burying place has never been 100% confirmed. He is allegedly buried alongside Saints Brigid and Columcille at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, but this has not been proven. It’s a mystery!
Bonus St. Patrick’s Day knowledge: Don’t abbreviate it as St. Patty’s. Ever. Patty is short for Patricia. Paddy is short for Padraig/Patrick.
- Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland
- St. Patrick’s Confessio (Declaration) via the Royal Irish Academy
- National Geographic’s Snakeless in Ireland
*I’m also Italian-American, but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with a St. Joseph’s primer on March 19th.
**There is evidence that he sent Palladius, who has often been mistaken for St. Patrick. There is evidence that Palladius was the first bishop in Ireland, before St. Patrick arrived, but was banished from the country.