History of St Patrick’s Day

St Patrick’s Day (or the Feast of St Patrick’s Day) is a saint day in Ireland, which is celebrated annually on 17 March. This feast marks the date of the death of the said saint, who is the Patron Saint of Ireland. 

The Origins

Like most saints, he dates back to the Ancient Times. The surprising part is that St Patrick was not even Irish! Born during the Roman Empire in the 5th century, he was actually Scottish, hailing from an area that had not lost its Celtic roots, but was under Roman pressure.

His real name was Magonus Saccatus Patricius.

When he was 16, he was captured by the Irish slave trade at the order of the High King of Scotland, and held in captivity in Ireland for six years.¹ It is unclear as to why he was singled out for the slave trade, and what they would the King want with this particular 16-year-old boy.

The surprising part is that St Patrick was not even Irish! He was actually Scottish.

During his time in captivity, St Patrick developed a life of prayer, discovered God and experienced visions. St Patrick managed to escape eventually, and be re-united with his family.  After many years of studying religion, he returned to Ireland to preach Christianity, build churches and baptise pagans.

The Legends

There two aspects of St Patrick’s sainthood that he is so famous for:

  1. He taught the Holy Trinity to the pagan people by using the shamrock. This is is a three-leaved native Irish clover that is found wild on the fields of Ireland. By the clover having three leaves, he pointed out that God had three parts (Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit), rather than there being three Gods.

    How St Patrick would have taught the Holy Trinity
  2. It is said that he freed Ireland from the plague of snakes. The strange bit about this story is that there never ever have been any snakes in Ireland (certainly not since the first Ice Age!). It is believed that this story is just a metaphor for another ‘snake’ that St Patrick drove out. It is possible that this is just a cover-up of a more sinister reason, such as he got rid of druids, who actually had tattoos of serpents on their arms.² A little bit sinister, as he could have done been involved in an extermination of some sort.
St Patrick and the Snakes. He is often portrayed with a staff, snakes and shamrocks. Source: valentinex.com
Commemorations

St Patrick died on the 17 March, 461. By the early Middle Ages, he was hailed as the Patron Saint of Ireland, most likely for ‘cleansing’ Ireland of paganism.

It is said that he freed Ireland from the plague of snakes. The strange bit about this story is that there never ever have been any snakes in Ireland.

By the 9th and 10th centuries, St Patrick’s saint day began to be marked. Like most saint days, it started out as a feast day. It always fell during Lent, when abstinence of meat and other enjoyments was observed.

Whenever St Patrick’s day came about, it was the one day that Christians could eat meat, feast and dance. Traditionally, they would go to church in the morning, and celebrate in the afternoon.

First St Patrick’s Parade. Source: timefortheholidays.net.

The first St Patrick’s Day was not held until 1762.³ Funnily enough, it was held in America, not Ireland. There were some Irish soldiers, who were keen to get back in touch with their Irish roots. During this same period, Irish people began to wear shamrock badges. It was really the Irish-Americans who started the whole St Patrick’s Day celebrations that takes place across the world today.

So, the next time you celebrate St Patrick’s Day, remember the strange aspects of the saint that is widely unknown. You never know, you may be like St Patrick, and teach them something new!

¹ Living Shamrock, St Patrick and the Shamrock Story, http://www.livingshamrock.com/shamrock-story/[Accessed; 20 March 2015], paragraphs 1-5. 
² Patheos, Saint Patrick, Druids Snakes and Popular Mythshttp://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildhunt/2012/03/saint-patrick-druids-snakes-and-popular-myths.html, [Accessed: 20 March 2015], paragraph 1. 
³ History.com Staff, History of St Patrick's Day, History.com, http://www.history.com/topics/st-patricks-day/history-of-st-patricks-day, 2009, [Accessed: 20 March 2015], paragraph 3.
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One thought on “History of St Patrick’s Day”

  1. One thing that always amazes me is that with all of it’s rich and fascinating REAL history, we in the UK lack any meaningful national holiday to call our own. Virtually all of our national holidays are of a religious nature regardless of the fact that the population of the UK is largely secular or at least indifferent. So much for national pride!

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