St Patricks Day

St. Patrick was actually born in England

March 17th is St. Patrick's Day, a holiday honoring St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland who died on March 17th (the exact year is unknown but is believed to be around 460 A.D.).

Like St. Nicholas, we know when he died but not when he was born so the Church celebrates is feast day on the day of his death.

Originally a religious holiday celebrated in Ireland, it has evolved in America into a secular holiday honoring Ireland and the Irish.

St. Patrick's Early Life

We know that St. Patrick was born around 385 A.D. (the exact year is unknown) somewhere in that part of Great Britain which was then under Roman rule.

Various accounts have him being born in England, Wales or Scotland.

His father was a Roman soldier and a deacon in the village church. His mother came from a local Christian family.

While his mother's family appears to have been believers in the faith, his father seems to have become a deacon more for the tax advantages it offered than for religious motivates.

In either case, Patrick was raised in a privileged family and took little interest in religion while he was growing up.

When Patrick was 16, raiders attacked his village. Patrick was captured and taken to Ireland where he was sold as a slave.

While a slave, Patrick turned to the faith he had largely ignored as a child and this helped him to deal with the blow fate had dealt him.

After six years he escaped, making his way first to England and then to Gaul (France) where he studied and became a priest. He then returned to Ireland with the dual mission of ministering to the small Christian community in Ireland and to converting the rest of the island to Christianity.

Saint Patrick Returns to Ireland to Preach and Convert

Contrary to what many believe, St. Patrick not only did not introduce Christianity to Ireland but he was also not the first Christian missionary to be sent to Ireland.

Some small, scattered Christian communities already existed in Ireland in the early fifth century when the Church decided to send a missionary to minister to them and to convert the rest of the island.

The Church leaders first choose St. Palladius for the job, but, after spending a couple of years struggling unsuccessfully against the entrenched Druids, St. Palladius, first bishop of Ireland, was forced to flee the island.

St. Patrick was then dispatched to the island as its second bishop with the mission of converting Ireland to Christianity.

Armed with the knowledge of the language and people gained from his years as a slave, Patrick succeeded where Palladius had failed.

St. Patrick Uses The Shamrock to Illustrate the Concept of the Holy Trinity

Saint. Patrick devoted the rest of his life to cultivating Christianity in Ireland. Patrick knew the Irish language and preached to them in that language. He also knew the culture and traditions of the people and he used this knowledge to preach and teach in terms of the images they knew and loved.

One of his more famous uses of traditional Irish imagery in his preaching was the shamrock - a clover with three leaves that grows abundantly in Ireland. Patrick used this plant – a single stem with three leaves – to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity which is One God in three divine persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

Using this plant he helped his flock to visualize and understand this difficult theological concept. By the time of his death, had succeeded banishing the Druid cults and converting most of the population to Christianity. This is his greatest legacy.

St. Patrick's Day Has Been Observed for Over One Thousand Years

For over 1,000 years, March 17th, the anniversary of St. Patrick's death has been celebrated as a holy day in Ireland.

Unlike the later Puritan strains of Christianity which tended to keep the sacred (i.e., religious) and profane (i.e., secular or worldly) aspects of life separate, the Catholic Church has traditionally treated the two as parts of the same whole.

Thus, feast days honoring saints or other significant events in the Church (such as Christmas and Easter), were celebrations that combined religious worship with the more worldly feasting, singing and dancing.

The medieval celebrations of holy days such as St. Patrick's Day, Christmas, etc. were not that much different from our modern celebrations of these same days in that they were days on which normal activities were put aside and people got together first to worship and then to celebrate by having fun with family and friends.

In the modern world we have tended to largely discard the religious parts of the celebration of these holy days but have continued the feasting and merrymaking aspects. Even our word "holiday" is a contraction of the word "holy day".

In Ireland in times past, St. Patrick's day began with a Mass honoring the saint and this was followed by singing, dancing, drinking and feasting on bacon and cabbage.

Other than dispensing with the Mass and substituting corned beef for the bacon, this is not much different from the way most of us now celebrate the holiday.

St. Patrick's Day Comes to the United States

St. Patrick's Day was first celebrated in the United States by Irish troops in the British army who were stationed in places like Boston and New York City in the early years of the eighteenth century (1700s), decades before we declared our independence from England.

The celebration of St. Patrick's Day in the U.S. was continued by the first waves of immigrants from Ireland.

These immigrants were Protestant tenant farmers from the north of Ireland (Ulster) who came to America in waves during the last half of the eighteenth century when, in order to convert estate lands to the raising of sheep which was more profitable, their landlords evicted them from the small plots they farmed.

The potato famine in the mid-nineteenth century in Ireland inaugurated the second, and larger, wave of mass migration to the U.S. as thousands of Irish fled the grinding poverty and mass starvation that plagued Ireland at that time.

These were mostly Catholics from what is now the Republic of Ireland and they flocked to the factories in the cities or helped build the canals and railroads that were springing up all over the U.S.

With their large numbers in the cities, this group celebrated with parades as well as singing, dancing, drinking and feasting. Thus began the tradition of St. Patrick's Day parades in U.S. cities that had a strong Irish influence.

Today, St. Patrick's Day is a secular holiday celebrated by all regardless of religion or ethnicity.

On March 17th everyone is Irish, if only for the day. It is fitting that anyone can join in the festivities and be Irish for the day. After all, St. Patrick, Ireland's most famous saint, was himself an Englishman by birth.

St. Patrick's Church in Landsdowne, Ontario, Canada.  Built in 1860
St. Patrick's Church in Landsdowne, Ontario, Canada. Built in 1860 | Source

© 2007 Chuck Nugent

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2 comments

Leslie 5 years ago

Today is my Birthday!


therese callahan 7 years ago

excellant bio and history of our beloved saint. thnak you. I'm English by birth Boswell) and Irish by marriage.

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