St Patrick

St. Patrick’s Day: History & Origins of the Celebration

Ireland’s patron saint, a man who isn’t even Irish, has become a legend the world over. Everyone has heard of him, the man who drove the snakes out of Ireland, but few truly know who he is.

Celebrated on March 17, St. Patrick (Patricius) was born in the late 4th century, kidnapped as a child, and taken to Ireland as a slave. He later escaped, but returned to Ireland to help the Irish convert to Christianity.

Here, we give you a full account of Ireland’s patron saint, his history, and the origins of St. Patrick’s Day when the entire world goes green for one day.

The Life of St. Patrick

The early life of Saint Patrick is shrouded in mystery, but we do know that he was born around 461 CE in Roman Britain. His father, Calpornius, was a deacon, and his grandfather, Potitus, was a priest. Their home was in a place called Bannavem Taburniae, for which there are numerous theories as to its location.

St Patrick
A traditional depiction of St Patrick

At the age of about 16, Patrick was enslaved and taken to Ireland, along with thousands of other kidnapped victims, by his captors.

In his own words, Patrick “deserved this” because he had fallen away from God and “did not keep his commandments”. He spent six years as a slave for a pagan master and, following a dream of a waiting ship that would carry him home to Britain, Patrick escaped the clutches of his master and set sail for Britain.

But his life was not easy; he came close to starvation on his journey home, and he was captured a second time – though briefly – before he made it back to his family.

He tells us, in his Confessio, of a new dream after his return home, in which he was delivered a letter whose heading read The Voice of the Irish. As he read the letter, he was “deeply moved” by the sound of the Irish beseeching him to return and walk among them.

He did not at once heed the dream. For a long time, he refused to listen to it. Even when he was setting sail for the island nation that had previously enslaved him, there was doubt in his mind. But he put his trust in the Lord and, as he journeyed across Ireland’s green hills, he preached to the pagans and baptized them.

St. Patrick The Miracle Maker

Imbued with the Will of God, Patrick preached the Lord’s Word wherever he went, despite his (very real) fears of martyrdom. He had been threatened, cast in manacles (chains), and almost certainly lived in fear.

But where his words were heard by many, and his flock of baptized Christians grew in number, so too did his miracles of life. Patrick himself tells us that he raised the dead, and it is said that he brought 33 people back to life, some of whom had been dead for quite some time.

“Thirty and three dead men, some of whom had been many years buried,
did this great reviver raise from the dead”

– Our Lady of the Rosary Library

The Story of the Shamrock

The shamrock, whose three leaves have a distinctive shape, is the traditional symbol of St. Patrick’s Day. It is said that Patrick would point to the symbol when a trio of snakes met him in a church. One by one, the snakes bit him until only the thistle remained.

He is also said to have gone around Ireland wearing a shamrock on his cloak, to warn away snakes and demons. Shamrocks are often used to decorate St. Patrick’s Day tables, a tradition that began in the United States in the 1930s.

In Ireland, small bunches of shamrocks are still worn on lapels and clothing to this day. St. Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to illustrate the divine unity of the trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

St. Patrick’s Day

Dressed as St Patrick
A man dresses up as St Patrick to celebrate on March 17.

Today, parades are held right across the world, most notably in the United States and, of course, in towns and cities all across Ireland. It is a national public holiday in Ireland, and there is much celebrating (with alcohol in abundant measure, no less).

Children dress up and join the parades, and the national folk music spills out of the bars and pubs as dizzyingly as do the people.

Peter J Merrigan
Peter J Merrigan was first published at the age of 17 in the Simon & Schuster anthology, Children of the Troubles. He has studied extensively and maintains a passion for pre-Christian Ireland. He is the author of the Ailigh Wars Saga novels, set in Iron Age Ireland.
peter@peterjmerrigan.com