St. Patrick – The Man Behind the Holiday

Saint Patrick was a fifth-century Christian missionary and bishop in Ireland. Known as the “Apostle of Ireland”, he is the primary patron saint of the country.

The dates of Patrick’s life cannot be determined, but it appears he was active in Ireland during the second half of the fifth century. He is traditionally credited with being the first bishop of Armagh, Primate of Ireland.

When he was about 16, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates from his home in Great Britain, and taken as a slave to Ireland. He lived there for six years and was responsible for looking after animals. He then escaped and returned to his family.

After entering religious life, he returned to northern and western Ireland. By the seventh century, he had already come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.


St. Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17th, which is said to be the date of his death. It is celebrated inside and outside Ireland as a religious and cultural holiday. In the dioceses of Ireland, it is both a solemnity and a holy day of obligation as well as a celebration of Ireland itself.



Patrick uses shamrock in an illustrative parable

Legend credits St. Patrick with teaching the Irish about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity by showing people the shamrock, a three-leafed plant, using it to illustrate the Christian teaching of three persons in one God. This story first appears in writing in 1726, though it may be older. The shamrock has since become a central symbol for St Patrick’s Day.

Patrick banishes all snakes from Ireland

The absence of snakes in Ireland gave rise to the legend that they had all been banished by St. Patrick who reputedly chased them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill. In reality, evidence suggests that post-glacial Ireland never had snakes.

Patrick’s walking stick grows into a living tree

Some Irish legends state that, during his evangelizing journey back to Ireland from his parent’s home, he is understood to have carried with him an ash wood walking stick or staff. He thrust this stick into the ground wherever he was evangelizing and the message took so long to get through to the people that the stick had taken root by the time he was done.

Patrick speaks with ancient Irish ancestors

The twelfth-century work Acallam na Senórach tells of Patrick being met by two ancient warriors, Caílte mac Rónáin and Oisín, during his evangelical travels. St. Patrick seeks to convert the warriors to Christianity, while they defend their pagan past. The heroic pagan lifestyle of the warriors, of fighting and feasting and living close to nature, is contrasted with the more peaceful, but unheroic and non-sensual life offered by Christianity.


At any rate, enjoy your St. Patrick day celebration. I recently met a man from Dublin and I asked him if they celebrate as vigorously in Ireland as we do in the U.S. He rolled his eyes and told me that Americans are amateurs when it comes to St. Patrick’s Day. He told me that in Dublin, if you don’t wake up horribly hungover in a strange place with at least one black eye or a missing tooth, you didn’t celebrate properly. His response did not help to counter stereotypes, but he may have been giving me a bit o’ the Blarney.

3 thoughts on “St. Patrick – The Man Behind the Holiday

  1. Nice to know St. Patrick’s Day has something serious behind it.

    While in checkout line today, the cashier asked me “No green today?” because I wasn’t wearing green. The lady behind me seemed to get excited and pinched me. I smiled but I really just wanted to roll my eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As a kid, my Italian family celebrated St. Joseph’s Feast day which is two days after St. Patrick”s Day. We wore red and prepared a lot of food, but it was also a holy day so church was involved and it wasn’t quite as rowdy.

      Liked by 1 person

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