Wednesday, March 16, 2011


   The trappings of St. Patrick's Day are familiar to most Americans these days.  There's drinking, green bowlers, leprechauns with their shillelaghs, four leaf clovers everywhere you can imagine, and parades that usually involve men in kilts playing the bagpipes.  While these celebrations are fairly old, beginning in the 1760's in New York, St. Patrick's Day has been observed by the Irish for over 1,000 years.   As such, to figure out just where everything came from and where this saint came from, you need to dig back into history.
   Though we know him today as Patrick, the man's original name was Succat according to Baby Names of Ireland.  Succat, or Patrick to keep things simple, was born to wealthy parents in Britain.  His father was a Christian deacon, though the household appeared to be devoted to the church more for tax breaks than for faith.  Patrick was taken hostage at the age of 16 by Celtic raiders, who were part of the armies of the Irish High King Niall of the 9 Hostages.  Once captured, Patrick was sent back to Ireland to work as a slave.

   Once he went back to Ireland, Patrick was allegedly put to work as a shepherd.  Out in the middle of nowhere, away from people and all alone, Patrick turned to god for comfort and solace.  Though he was a slave for many years, Patrick had a vision that he needed to bring his faith to the people of Ireland.  After almost 6 years, Patrick walked away from his post as a shepherd, traveling more than 200 miles to return to Ireland where he studied and was eventually made a priest and a missionary.  He then returned to Ireland to try and bring the entire kingdom to Christianity.

   Now St. Patrick wasn't the first to attempt to convert an entire nation, however he had figured out an important strategy that has worked time and time again in easing transition of pagan peoples to the church.  You read the culture and the ways of the pagan people, and you find ways to compare the religion and culture they have to make it seem very similar to Christianity.  For instance, the sun played an important part in Celtic faith.  You compare the light of the sun to the light of Jesus on the world, add a few tweaks to the feast days and holidays, and you've made the first steps towards conversion.  This technique still shows evidence in many modern holidays like Christmas and even Valentine's Day, where the church took existing holidays and made the celebration's more church friendly from what they were initially to help carry over the pagan holdouts.

   St. Patrick had a resounding success with his efforts to Christianize the Irish.  In fact he was so successful that he's credited with bringing the Catholic faith almost single handily to Ireland.  This has made St. Patrick something of a folk hero, which is why so many of the stories about him, including the chasing out of all the snakes in Ireland, which might refer to either the druids or  to the devil, seem to be inflated until they resemble American tall tales.

   While no one's entirely sure of the truth about St. Patrick and what specifically he did or didn't do, he's become a symbol of the Irish people and of those descended from the Irish.  Along with the claddagh, the various tartans and other symbols of Irish pride, St. Patrick is one of the many historical forces that started bringing individual villages and counties together into a single, more or less unified culture.  Of course the celebration and fest day in March, when restrictions on meat and alcohol curing Lent are temporarily raised in honor of the Irish Saint, probably helps with his popularity and remembrance as well