March 17th is now the day where we gather around pubs after donning merry green attire to celebrate all things Irish. The day itself falls on the Feast of St.Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Oddly enough, St.Patrick was neither Irish, nor were his celebrated endeavors particularly well recorded.
Born around 380 AD, Maewyn Saccat lived in Bannavem Taberniae for the early part of his life. While likely in Scotland, Bannavem could have been located in Wales or in England during the time of the Roman occupation of the British Isles. Known better by his Christian name, Patricius (Patrick a la Romanization), Maewyn resided in Great Britain until around 396 AD, when a group of Irish raiders captured him and forced him into slavery in Ireland. Patrick found himself herding sheep for the Irish pagans for the next six years until God spoke to him in a dream and laid down an escape plan for him. Patrick walked 200 miles across Ireland where he hopped a boat and sailed to his homeland in England/Scotland/Wales.
His religious experience led to him joining the Church and becoming an ordained priest, when God sent up another smoke signal to the young Patrick in his dreams. Patrick decided to return to Ireland with the Pope’s blessing and set about converting the locals of the island. He found immense success with the population and converted huge parts of the population as he wandered about, setting up schools, convents and monasteries as he went. The Druids who were the religious authorities of the land found Patrick’s constant conversions to be an irritation and they pressed for his arrest. Legend is that he escaped all the attempts, being guided by his God may have had something to do with it.
Patrick died on the 17th of March, cementing his position as an early force in Church conversion attempts. Here’s where the interesting bit begins. Very little is actually known about St.Patrick. What we do know comes from his biography and some scraps of writing that survived the last 1600 years. What is now considered to be common knowledge about Patrick (i.e. the use of the shamrock to teach the trinity, the driving the snakes out of Ireland) are all based on local folklore and mythos that developed over the years. Just like legendary figures from the early years of any group, (Rome wasn’t actually started by a kid whose mom was a wolf, that just sells magazines) St.Patrick has become much larger than life. One story is that while converting a certain town, he stuck his walking stick into the ground. The population was so stubborn that when he finally finished converting the town, the stick had grown roots and become a tree. Another holds that while fasting, Patrick was attacked by a swarm of snakes, who he warded off with the power of his conviction, driving them all into the water and off the island. Just so you all know, Ireland has no snakes. Never has. The closest thing to them is a wee legless lizard that scientists found in a little Irish town in 1970. So either snakes never migrated to the islands, or Patrick scored a critical hit when scaring snakes.
The other curious thing about St.Patrick besides him being the most Irish non-Irishman is the way certain things have become associated with him. The Four-Leaf Clover is emblazoned on nearly every cheap St.Paddy’s day knickknack and found on every third image of the holiday, but the story is that St.Patrick showed the people of Ireland the basic concept of the Trinity by using a shamrock (3 leaf clover). It was actually the Druids who managed to sell Four-Leaf Clovers as lucky charms, not the Catholic Saint. Odd how some of the things we see most as St.Patrick-ey are actually the product of the religion he tried to eradicate.
Citations, so you don’t overlook your four leaf clover:
Just so that isn’t a weird segue, it’s from a 1927 song http://www.fourleafclover.com/vshop/4-leaf_clover_song