Ireland’s national holiday is upon us. It’s time to go green and break out the shamrock, cheer on parades, listen to trad music and celebrate this little island on the western edge of Europe. It’s St. Patrick’s Day. So who was he and what did he do? Why is Patrick so revered and what does a little plant have to do with it?
Patrick is one of Ireland’s patron saints, and the shamrock is his symbol. He converted Ireland to Christianity, and he explained the concept of the Holy Trinity to the Irish using the three-leaved shamrock to show how something could be one thing and three things at the same time. (In fairness, this was not a totally new concept to the pre-Christian Irish. They worshiped a triple goddess represented by triple spirals carved in Newgrange and elsewhere. But we’re not calling Patrick one of the world’s first mansplainers.)
Patrick wasn’t born Irish. His parents were Christian Romans, and they lived in Scotland. His father was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest. In his youth, Patrick was abducted from this very Christian background and brought to pagan Ireland as a slave. As he served the Druid-following locals, Patrick prayed fervently. He prayed up to a hundred times a day during the years he spent enslaved in Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Vision
Eventually, Patrick had a vision that inspired him to escape his masters. He found his way to the coast and managed to convince a ship’s captain to let him travel on the boat back to Scotland. It took him a long time, but he did return to his family. He spent some years peacefully in Scotland until he had another vision. This second vision inspired him to return to Ireland and spread the word of Jesus among the Irish.
He had his work cut out for him. Pre-Christian Ireland had its own rich culture. It wasn’t a simple matter of chasing a few snakes into the sea. In reality, Ireland has never had domestic snakes. It’s a metaphor for paganism.
And the pagans didn’t flee from him. They beat, robbed and imprisoned him. But over time, he made converts and more converts. One of the most famous was a chieftain who was prepared to kill Patrick. But the chieftain found he could not move his arm to strike Patrick. His arm was paralyzed until he agreed to welcome him instead.
Patrick, like most saints, has become vastly more popular after his death. In introducing Ireland to Christianity, he changed the course of the island’s history. He transformed the culture and society. And he gave us an emblem that is now recognized as our symbol around the world. Now, we celebrate not just Patrick but all of Irish culture and heritage every March 17th. St. Patrick’s Day became the global fest it is today thanks to the homesickness of Irish immigrants in North America who began to hold parades and festivals celebrating their homeland a century ago. This year, people will celebrate all around the world and wish each other a happy St. Patrick’s Day. Or a happy Paddy’s Day. But please, North Americans, please – not a happy St. Patty’s Day.