Just Who Was St. Patrick and Why Do We Celebrate Him in March?
Just who was St Patrick? Why do we have parades and events in March celebrating him? Did he really bring Christianity to Ireland? What’s up with the snake legend?
St. Patrick is said to have been born in the late fourth century AD in what was then Roman Britain to a Christian family. His birth name wasn’t Patrick. It was Maewyn Succat. However, shortly before the age of 16 – and long before he became the patron saint of Ireland – he was captured from his family villa by a group of Irish raiders who took him to Ireland and forced him to become a slave for six years. There is some debate over where he spent his time as a slave but most likely he was held in County Mayo, near Killala.
He worked as a shepherd during his captivity, outdoors and away from people. It was a lonely existence and he sought solace in his faith, becoming a devout Christian. Legend has it that he first dreamed of converting the Irish people to Christianity during his captivity. Eventually he escaped and according to his writing he heard a voice in a dream telling him it was time to leave Ireland. He returned after 15 years of study, again after a dream, as a missionary tasked with serving the Christians living in Ireland as well as converting the Irish.
We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on the anniversary of his death which is believed to be March 17th around 460 AD but interestingly enough he was never actually canonized by the Catholic Church despite being known as the patron saint of Ireland. However, in the first millennium there wasn’t a canonization process, it was more of a popular acclamation event.
So what about those snakes? Did he really drive all the snakes out of Ireland? True, the island is mercifully snake-free, but being an island it has probably always been that way. Scholars believe the snake story is a metaphor for St Patrick’s eradication of pagan ideology. And why is green associated with him? While Ireland may be the Emerald Isle with many shades of green…. The knights of the Order of St. Patrick wore a color known as St. Patrick’s blue.
Why celebrate? When Irish immigrants came to the United States in the 1700s they began organizing parades and events to celebrate Irish culture on March 17th which now is celebrated with parties, music, iconic food and – if you live in Chicago – dyeing the river green.
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