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Man behind the myth

By Kim O’Hare

Green brew will be flowing, people will be heading off to their favourite pub, breaking into poor imitations of Irish accents and wishing each other Happy St Patrick’s Day. But what’s it all about? Who exactly was St Patrick? pictureDespite the fact that Patrick is one of the more familiar names in the directory of Catholic saints, few people know much about him. Of course, there is the business about how he banished all the snakes from Ireland (false). Perhaps if you are going to raise a glass on March 17th, it’s time you got to know the man behind the legend.

He was born in Britain to wealthy parents around the end of the 4th century - not on March 17th, that was actually the date of his demise. There is no evidence that he came from a particularly religious family, although his father was a deacon, a career chosen apparently because of some tax incentives.

At the age of 16 he was taken prisoner by a group of Irish raiders who were attacking his family’s estate. He was spirited off to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity, but details are a bit sketchy. Some say he was held in County Mayo, others say it was County Antrim. During his forced confinement he was put to work as a shepherd, with virtually no contact with the outside world. It is thought his loneliness led him to becoming a devout Christian. 

He eventually escaped and walked nearly 200 miles to the Irish coast. He made his way back to Britain but had a second spiritual encounter, telling him to return to Ireland as a missionary. This may be the origin of the legend that he brought Christianity to Ireland.

Back in Ireland, rather than trying to eradicate traditional Irish pagan beliefs, Patrick adapted his Christian teachings to embrace the Irish traditions.  For example, he used bonfires to celebrate Easter, since the Irish had long used bonfires to celebrate their own deities. He also superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, on to the Christian cross, creating what is now known as the Celtic cross.

It is difficult separating the truth from the myth. The whole idea of the snakes has been around for centuries, but theorists say the “snakes” referred to were the “serpent” symbols of the Druids.

As far as the shamrock, legend has it that Patrick used the shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity; the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  For about 40 years, Patrick preached the Gospel throughout Ireland, converting many. He and his disciples began building churches all over the country. Because of its theological significance, the shamrock has become a national symbol of Ireland as an expression of the Irish’s faith in the Trinity. Thus, although one often sees four-leaf clovers as symbols of Ireland in advertisements, it is the three-lobe shamrock which is the proper symbol.

For most of Christianity’s first 1,000 years, canonisations were done on the diocesan or regional level. Relatively soon after the death of people considered to be very holy, the local church affirmed that they could be liturgically celebrated as saints. As a result, St Patrick has never been formally canonised by a Pope. Nevertheless, the Church declares that he is a Saint in Heaven (he is in the List of Saints).

The St Patrick’s Day celebrations were observed as one of the more significant religious celebrations of the church. On St Patrick’s Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived and people would dance, drink, and feast on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage. pictureThe first St Patrick’s Day parade took place not in Ireland, but in the United States. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762. Along with their music, the parade helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots, as well as fellow Irishmen serving in the English army.

Over the next 35 years, Irish patriotism among American immigrants flourished, prompting the rise of so-called “Irish Aid” societies, like the Friendly Sons of St Patrick and the Hibernian Society. Each group would hold annual parades, featuring bagpipes and drums.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, most Irish immigrants in America were members of the Protestant middle class. When the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, close to a million poor, uneducated, Catholic Irish began to pour into America to escape starvation. Despised for their religious beliefs and funny accents by the American Protestant majority, the immigrants had trouble finding even menial jobs. When Irish Americans in the country’s cities took to the streets on St Patrick’s Day to celebrate their heritage, newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as drunk, violent louts.

However, the Irish soon began to realize that their great numbers endowed them with a political power that had yet to be exploited. They started to organize, and their voting block, known as the “green machine”, became an important swing vote for political hopefuls.

Suddenly, annual St Patrick’s Day parades became a show of strength for Irish Americans, as well as a must-attend event for a slew of political candidates. In 1948, President Truman attended New York City ‘s St Patrick’s Day parade, a proud moment for the many Irish whose ancestors had to fight stereotypes and racial prejudice to find acceptance in America. Of course, Ronald Reagan was also anxious to cash in on his Irish heritage when it suited him. Boston and Chicago boast the largest parades, with Chicago turning its river green for the event.

Today, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated by people of all backgrounds all over the world. Although North America is home to the largest productions, the festival has been celebrated in other locations far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore, and Russia.

In modern-day Ireland, St Patrick’s Day has traditionally been a religious occasion. In fact, up until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on March 17. Beginning in 1995, however, the Irish government began a national campaign to use St Patrick’s Day as an opportunity to drive tourism and showcase Ireland to the rest of the world. Last year, close to one million people took part in Ireland ‘s St Patrick’s Festival in Dublin, a multi-day celebration featuring parades, concerts, outdoor theatre productions, and fireworks shows. 

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