St. Patrick’s Day has become a holiday far-removed (think green beer) from its roots. Many traditions, such as wearing green and eating corned beef come from Irish immigrants, who after coming to America transplanted and adapted their customs for life in a new country.
Much of what we know about St. Patrick was written long after his death, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. What we do know is that he was born in Scotland, sometime in the late 4th century.
There are only two surviving documents historians agree were written by the real St. Patrick. One is a letter called Confessio, Latin for Declaration, where he wrote about his life.1
When Patrick was 16, he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland where he was sold to an Irish chieftain and was a slave for six years. During this time, he began to pray. As he told it, “In a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same.”
Strange as it may seem, his time as a slave prepared him for his mission in life. He became deeply spiritual, but he mastered the Irish language and learned the culture of the island.2
In his Confessio, Patrick wrote that an angel encouraged him to escape. After travelling on foot for 200 miles, he finally reached the coast and found a ship ready to sale. Soon he was back home with a new-found dedication to serving God. He joined various monasteries and became a priest. At some point, he received a vision … a vision that would ultimately lead him back to Ireland.
“In a vision of the night, I saw a man … coming as if from Ireland with … letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish’: and as I was reading … I seemed at that moment to hear … they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and walk again among us.’ And I was stung intensely in my heart so that I could read no more, and thus I awoke.”1
Back in Ireland, he worked tirelessly to convert the island to Christianity. Prior to his arrival, Druidism was Ireland’s main religion, and they were understandably hostile. He was beaten, robbed, and even imprisoned, but still managed to baptize “thousands.” And he fought against slavery, excommunicating other Christians who practiced it.
He died on March 17th, probably in the year 460. So when we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, we’re actually celebrating the anniversary of his death. While most of the day’s traditions are modern, a few stem from Patrick. He is sometimes said to have used the three-leafed shamrock as a way to preach the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Patrick was an incredibly important figure in the history of Ireland, and much of the country’s religious history stems from him. Over time, his name has become attached to more modern traditions, but most holidays have evolved. It’s our way of wedding the past with the present. From all of us, have a safe and happy St. Patrick’s Day!