Every March 17th, Ireland, along with countries boasting large Irish immigrant populations - such as Australia, Canada, the United States, and the whole of Europe - gather together in a celebration of all things Irish. A display of traditional Irish culture and icons that have morphed their way into mainstream St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, the 17th of March becomes a sea of bright green, complete with leprechauns, shamrocks, and pots of gold. But that’s not the whole story.
Commemorating the feast day of Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, the origins of the celebration are rooted in 5th century Druid Ireland. Patricius, later Saint Patrick, was born around 387 A.D. in Roman Britain. Historians have been unable to pinpoint Saint Patrick’s birthplace but have narrowed it down to regions possibly in Brittany, Scotland, or Wales. Born into an aristocratic Christian family, Saint Patrick showed little interest in his family’s spiritual beliefs, thus historians have dubbed young Saint Patrick a modern day atheist.
At around sixteen years old, Saint Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders, thrown onto a ship, and sold to a chieftain after landing in Ireland. Enslaved for six years, Saint Patrick served as an isolated shepherd, tending flocks in the harsh island weather with little to no shelter or provisions. Removed from civilization, it was during this time of servitude that Saint Patrick began to rely on the God of his parents, resulting in his conversion to Christianity.
Six years after being taken captive, Saint Patrick received a message in a dream stating that his devotion would be rewarded and he would soon be going home. Immediately after, Saint Patrick set out for the sea, crossing 200 miles as a fugitive and boarding a ship for Britain. Returning home as a young man, Patrick remained devout and began to study at the local monastery where he later joined the clergy and was ordained a bishop of Auxerre.
During his study, Saint Patrick received another dream where he was urged to return to Ireland. He arrived on the Emerald Isle as a missionary around 432 A.D. and was not well received. The people of 5th Century Ireland were enduring harsh times enmeshed in tribalism, division, and violence, however Patrick gained credibility to a widely Pagan audience through his methods of teaching and explaining the tenets of Christianity. Due to his early capture, Saint Patrick was equipped with the cultural knowledge, language, and beliefs practiced by the Celts, helping to integrate Saint Patrick back into their society.
Though Saint Patrick was not the first missionary in Ireland, he was able to grow the small, already present Christian communities by establishing churches and schools, improving literacy, and providing educational resources to the people of Ireland. Saint Patrick served the Irish for almost thirty years before his death in 461 A.D. He is attributed with planting over 300 churches, promoting literacy and education, and acting as the catalyst that transformed Ireland into a Christian state. Though Saint Patrick was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church, his presence and message became immortalized during the early celebrations of his feast day.
Contributed by Rebecca Stokes, Fairmont Private Schools
Images by Crisis Magazine
Mark, Joshua J. (2015, September). “Saint Patrick.” Retrieved from http://www.ancient.eu/Saint_Patrick/
Kithcart, David “Patricius: The True Story of St. Patrick.” Retrieved March 16, 2016, from http://www1.cbn.com/churchandministry/patricius%3A-the-true-story-of-st.-patrick
Biography.com Editors “Biography of Saint Patrick.” Retrieved March 16, 2016, from http://www.biography.com/people/st-patrick-9434729