All of these images are associated with St. Patrick’s Day but, curiously, Patrick was known for a particular shade of blue. He is depicted wearing blue vestments and military men wore “St. Patrick’s Blue” in their uniforms. It is not known exactly how or when green became associated with St. Patrick’s Day; however, in Irish folklore green symbolized new life and crop growth and was worn by fairies and immortals. Also, green is associated with the country itself due to the prominence of bright green fields giving it the name of The Emerald Isle.
That is just one of several misconceptions surrounding the popular day for the Irish. For starters, Patrick was not Irish but was born in 385 in Kilpatrick, England, which is now part of Scotland, making the patron saint of Ireland Scottish. His parents were wealthy Romans living in Britain in charge of the colonies. His name was Maewyn Succat, however, he took the name Patricius or Patrick when he was ordained.
When he was between 14 and 16 (sources vary) he was kidnapped by a raiding party from Ireland and taken as a slave to herd and tend sheep. While there he learned the language and the ways of the Druids and pagans. He was lonely and frightened and turned to God and prayer for comfort. After six years he escaped and was guided by visions and dreams to safety.
He studied for the priesthood and after being ordained he was sent back to Ireland. He arrived in Ireland March 25, 433 at Slane. One legend tells that he met a chieftain who tried to kill him. Patrick converted him after the chieftain was unable to move his arm until he befriended Patrick. Patrick and his disciples preached throughout Ireland for 40 years converting most of the people. This is perhaps the source of the legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. There were no snakes in Ireland when Patrick arrived but, through his work converting the pagans and Druids and establishing schools, churches, and monasteries, the legend of the snakes symbolizes the disappearance of other beliefs when Patrick planted the seeds of Christianity.
He was successful because he knew the language and used traditional customs, symbols, and rituals already familiar to the people in teaching Christianity. He used bonfires to celebrate Easter since this was a way the Irish normally honored their gods. He also superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called the Celtic cross. This made the symbol more natural to the Irish.
Another traditional symbol is the shamrock or as the Celts called it the “seamroy”. It was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland and symbolized the rebirth of spring. Patrick used the three leafed clover to explain the trinity of the father, son, and Holy Spirit in one. By the seventeenth century the shamrock became a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism. As the English seized Irish lands and made laws forbidding use of the Irish language, its music, and practice of Catholicism, many began wearing the shamrock as a symbol of pride in their heritage and their displeasure with English rule. Queen Elizabeth I even decreed that all artists and pipers were to be arrested and hanged on the spot.
And what about the little men in green suits called leprechauns? The Celts believed in fairies who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. In Celtic folklore, leprechauns were known as cranky souls who mended the fairies’ shoes. They were also known for their trickery used in protecting their treasures.
Finally, the day Patrick died, March 17, has long been observed as a religious feast day—not an excuse for a day long drinking orgy. (Although the Irish have been known to put away a pint or two.) He died at Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland in 461 where he built the first church. In Ireland March 17 was a religious day and all pubs were closed until the 1970s when laws were finally passed allowing the pubs to remain open on that day. The tradition of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S. began with a military parade marching through New York City on March 17, 1762. Led by bagpipes and drums, these parades flourished over the next 35 years sponsored by several Irish Aid societies. Each society held its own parade until 1848 when several New York Irish Aid societies decided to unite their parades to form one New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Today, that parade is the world’s oldest civilian parade.
The Irish have known their share of discrimination. During the great potato famine beginning in 1845, nearly a million poor and uneducated Irish Catholics came to America to escape starvation. The American Protestant majority hated them for their religion and funny accents and put signs in the windows saying “No Irish Need Apply.” It was hard for them to find even menial jobs and newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as drunk and violent monkeys. However, they began to realize that their great numbers gave them political power. They started to organize and their voting block, known as the “green machine,” became an important swing vote for politicians. In 1948 President Truman attended New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade which was a proud time for those Irish whose ancestors had to fight stereotypes and racial prejudice to find acceptance and work in America.
How times have changed. Today everyone is Irish, even if for only one day. Almost everyone wears green on March 17, many eat the traditional corned beef and cabbage dinner with Irish soda bread, and quite a few enjoy downing a pint or two of green beer or Guinness. Irish is the nation’s second most frequently reported ancestry with the Germans ranking first. There are 36.0 million Americans with Irish roots which is eight times the population of Ireland itself.
My own family claims Irish roots with my father’s family going back to 1774 when our ancestor came here with the British army as one of the king’s soldiers in an Irish regiment. He was a “pressed” soldier from Ireland which is roughly the equivalent of a drafted soldier in today’s military. Fortunately, according to family legend, he became a turncoat and fought for the colonists. My mother’s family is unable to accurately trace its roots since her ancestor came here during the potato famine as a stowaway on a boat and entered the country illegally.
So whether you are officially Irish or Irish for the day, take a moment to reflect on the life of a man who changed a nation by being true to his faith. Erin Go Bragh (Gaelic for Ireland Forever).
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
–A Traditional Irish Blessing
- Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day (jsroemer.wordpress.com)