Next week, the world will celebrate the day of green, shamrocks, and hopefully a little luck—that’s right, Saint Patrick’s Day.
Who was St. Patrick?
Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in Roman Britain around 390, and kidnapped by Irish raiders at age 16. Maewyn later escaped back to Britain, but after completing religious training at a monastery (and changing his name to Patrick), he returned to Ireland in 432 to serve as a missionary. With his passing on March 17, 460 (the exact year is a point of some debate), Patrick was recognized as a saint, although he has never officially been canonized by the Catholic Church.
This was shocking to naïve me! St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish by birth—he grew up in Britain! This is really ironic in light of the often tense relations between the two nations and peoples throughout history—this “ginger” can attest to British ire against Irish-looking redheads from my own travels in England!
According to legend, Patrick is credited with ridding Ireland of snakes. In fact, most scientists believe there have not been any snakes in Ireland since the last Ice Age, which kept the island too cold for reptiles until it ended 10,000 years ago. (Here’s a nice map of Europe during the last glaciation.) After the Ice Age, surrounding seas may have kept snakes from colonizing the Emerald Isle.
Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, says “At no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in Ireland. [There was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish.”
As a Christian evangelist, Patrick used shamrocks, a form of three-leaf clover, to teach about the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity—three expressions of one God.
The shamrock is also symbolic of spring, and it is customary in Ireland to plant something new in the garden each day during Saint Patrick’s week.
St. Patrick was actually originally associated with the color blue. In fact, the Irish presidential seal remains a harp on a “St. Patrick’s blue” background. (Take a look at it here.)
People originally wore a single green shamrock, a symbol of Ireland and Christianity, to honor St. Patrick. In 1798, Irish people opposed British rule. On March 17, 1798, Irish soldiers were among the first to wear solid-green uniforms.
I always thought of St. Patrick’s Day as most closely associated with the Catholic southern part of Ireland, as opposed to the dominantly Protestant Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Here’s a map of Ireland.
But, in fact, St. Patrick did most of his missionary work in Northern Ireland—here’s a map—and is said to be buried there in the town of Downpatrick. Interesting.
Why big celebrations in the States?
The United States is one of the most important destinations for the Irish Diaspora, with millions of Irish immigrants making new homes in the Nw World 19th and 20th centuries. Check out this beautifully informative map to navigate the diaspora, and read more about who celebrates St. Patrick’s Day here.
“Traditional” Irish foods are also more Irish-American than strictly Irish. Potatoes are the food most often associated with Ireland. However, potatoes are native to the Americas and were not introduced to Ireland until the 1500s. Corned beef and cabbage are actually Irish-American foods. Irish communities in places like New York City adapted recipes from the traditions of their fellow-immigrant neighbors—Jewish delis and Eastern European families. Although these foods didn’t start out as Irish, they became Irish . . . just like St. Patrick.
Celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day in America are perhaps less about honoring Ireland’s patron saint as they are about feting the coming of spring, the history of Irish immigration, and the enduring legacy of Irish culture—which for me means watching adorable Irish step dancers while enjoying a finely crafted pint of beer with friends at a cozy neighborhood pub.
Sarah Evans and Sarah Jane started this post for My Wonderful World back in March 2010!