Nearly every holiday we celebrate starts with a story. That story gets told throughout the years until it becomes legend, at which point people decide that the legend is worthy of celebration. Somewhere on the way to legendary status, the original story often gets embellished to the point where it becomes difficult to separate truth from legend. Such is the case with the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick. March 17 is here, and it can be both fun and educational to take a look at the true origins of St. Patrick’s Day.
Fact vs. fiction
“The modern celebration of St. Patrick’s Day really has almost nothing to do with the real man,” classics professor Philip Freeman of Luther College in Iowa, told National Geographic.
In fact, most don’t know that the patron saint of Ireland wasn’t even born in Ireland. The boy, whom some suggest was originally named Maewyn, was born in Britain (or, some believe, Scotland) around A.D. 390 to an aristocratic Christian family. Despite growing up Christian, the boy felt unsure about the faith. It wasn’t until he was 16 years old that his views changed.
The teenager was kidnapped and sent across the sea to Ireland as a slave. There, in a cold mountainous region of Ireland, he toiled for seven years as a shepherd. During his time in bondage, he heard voices in his head compelling him to escape, which he did, eventually reuniting with his family.
The experience changed him, and he felt compelled to return to Ireland and change his name to Patrick. Before his return, he was ordained as a Catholic priest. He made it his mission to convert the largely pagan Irish population to Christianity. The work was hard, as he was routinely beaten by thugs, harassed by the Irish royalty, and admonished by his English superiors in the church. After he died on March 17, 461, stories about Patrick continued to be told for centuries.
The most common story attributed to his missionary work was his use of the three-leafed clover (shamrock) to explain the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity to the native Irish. As the shamrock consisted of three leaves growing from a single stem, Patrick reportedly used it to illustrate the belief that God (the stem) consists of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (the three leaves).
Today, people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day often wear a shamrock. Botanists consider the trifolium dubium—the wild-growing, three-leaf clover—to be the official shamrock, as it is an annual plant that germinates in the spring. The shamrock is the national flower of Ireland, and the word “shamrock” comes from the Irish word seamróg, meaning “little clover.”
Ask students whether they think there’s such a thing as a four-leaf clover. Although finding a four-leaf clover is considered good luck, it turns out that they rarely occur in nature. The actual odds of finding one are estimated at 10,000 to 1.
Another story attributed to St. Patrick is that he drove all of the snakes out of Ireland during his time as a missionary. We often see images of him casting out dozens of snakes. While it is true that Ireland is completely devoid of snakes, that is only because there have never been snakes there in all of recorded history. The cold waters of the Irish Sea make it impossible for snakes to get to the mainland from neighboring England or even continental Europe.
Historians suggest that the myth was likely spread by monks who wanted to embellish the efforts of the missionary Patrick. Others suggest that the snakes were meant to symbolize the casting out of pagans and paganism, whose beliefs St. Patrick viewed as ungodly. The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is therefore controversial among modern pagans.
Today St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17, the saint’s religious feast day and the anniversary of his death. The Irish have observed this religious holiday for over 1,000 years. Falling during the Christian season of Lent, the day is celebrated in Ireland with worship services in the morning and parties in the afternoon.
What students may not know is that large celebrations and parades are a relatively new development in Ireland. It wasn’t until after the 1970s, when the American celebrations of the holiday became popular, that the Irish began to follow suit in an attempt to boost tourism.
Observance of the holiday in the United States began in 1762, when eighteenth-century Irish soldiers fighting with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War held the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City. The soldiers marched through lower Manhattan to celebrate their Irish heritage. Other parades followed, including well-known celebrations in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, which boasted vibrant communities of Irish immigrants.
Since that time, American festivities have evolved into a general celebration of Irish culture. Today in the United States, St. Patrick’s Day is typically celebrated with clothing, accessories and decorations colored green and displaying traditional symbols such as the shamrock; parades; foods such as Irish soda bread, corned beef and cabbage; and Guinness® stout (a brand and style of beer associated with Ireland).
Celtic religion and mythical beings
Alongside the Catholic tradition of Ireland, there exist many traditions involving ancient Celtic religion and associated Druidism, including gods, goddesses and a variety of mythical beings.
One of the most famous mythological creatures associated with St. Patrick’s Day is the leprechaun. Smart and devious creatures, leprechauns look like little men, sharply dressed in waistcoats and shined shoes. Their legend says that each leprechaun possesses a pot of gold, which makes the creatures valuable to capture. Leprechauns are, however, granted magical abilities when caught and can use them to facilitate their escape.
Although probably less well known to students, the legend of the Pooka also is associated with the holiday. A Pooka, one of the most feared of the Irish goblins, appears only at night. It is a shape-shifter, which means it can take any form it chooses. While the Pooka is seen in the form of a dog, rabbit, goat, goblin or old man, its most common form is a dark, sleek horse with a flowing mane and glowing golden eyes. Pookas are known for having the ability to speak, and will use that ability to lie and cause general mischief.
The history of Ireland has been marked by challenges including famine, a struggle for independence from the United Kingdom, decades of civil war that divided the country, and economic troubles.
Begin by asking students what they know about the history of Ireland. Then explore the history of conflict in the country with this timeline. Beginning in the early 20th century, the nationalist movement began leading the campaign for Ireland’s independence from Britain, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began using guerilla tactics against opponents of the movement. The conflict existed not only between Ireland and Britain, but also within Ireland itself, centering on the civil rights of nationalists, as well as disagreement over Ireland’s national and religious identities.
Twenty-six counties in Ireland gained independence, and in 1973 the Republic of Ireland joined the European Union. Six counties in the northern region of Ireland remain a part of the United Kingdom, and as of 1998, a political settlement for the region was accepted by Irish voters. Sinn Fein (pronounced Shin-FAYN and translated as “we ourselves”), the political party that advocates for a united Ireland, helped develop peace strategies. Violence does, however, continue to erupt periodically in Ireland.
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