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The True Meaning of St. Patrick's Day

Updated on April 14, 2011

In America, St. Patrick's Day is commemorated by a mixture of green food coloring, alcohol, and parades whether or not one is of Irish descent. Some go to mass, some get drunk, some go to McDonald's for a minty Shamrock Shake. Those who are curious may tune in to the History Channel to learn about the life and time of Saint Patrick. In short, it means something a bit different to everyone. This year, I decided to read up on the history of the "special" relationship between Ireland and England (I mean no disrespect to those in the U.K. who would rather avoid the topic, but as both countries make up my heritage I found it vital to my sense of being). Without touching the issue of events after the Reformation, here is what is important to know in regard to Saint Patrick and these two countries (fans of Hetalia take note).

Saint Patrick is known for having "driven the snakes out of Ireland." According to history, these are not literal snakes; rather, they are meant to represent paganism (not that paganism has died out entirely, but I digress). As a boy, Saint Patrick was kidnapped and taken to Ireland to be a slave, but he escaped back home to England and became devoted to Roman Catholocism. He then returned to Ireland to bring Christianity to the isle. This became an important event in European history when the Roman Empire crumbled and the Dark Ages began. Because Ireland was so cut off from the rest of Europe, the written record of Christianity survived there and was delivered back to England and then the rest of Europe. Had Saint Patrick not returned to the land where he had been enslaved and preached Christianity, the Dark Ages could have lasted much longer and history would have turned out differently.

Call me a romantic, but if this account of history is true, Ireland and England had a very special relationship with each other up until the Reformation increased friction between the two countries. We may wonder why the history we know focuses more on the difficulties at the time of Reformation and the celebration of Saint Patrick's ousting of paganism in Ireland, but it is not for us to debate which religion is better than the other because although they differ they are none of them truly evil. Instead, we should try to focus on the similarities that tie us together rather than the differences that threaten to keep us apart. Now, when I go to McDonald's and sip my Shamrock Shake (alcohol doesn't interest me in the slightest, sorry), St. Patrick's Day means more to me than my yearly mint fix. I can mourn the atrocities of the conflict between the Protestants and Catholics I've long heard about, but I can get past that knowing that long before relations went sour, Christianity was a gift shared between two countries that lines of my ancestry came from. (Please forgive me if any of this is inaccurate or offensive, for I am an American out-of-touch with the lived experience of British holidays and history.)


Cronin, Mike. A History of Ireland. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Pelgrave, 2001.

Holland, Jack. Hope against History: The Course of Conflict in Northern Ireland. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.


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