St. Patrick’s Day has long been known as a day for partying and drinking. Most people don’t even really know what they’re celebrating on this holiday (Irish culture? Leprechauns? Guinness?), but it’s an amazing excuse to get hammered publicly. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if we went beyond the green decorations and the pints of Irish lager to remember what this holiday is really about?
With what do we associate St. Patrick’s Day, beyond the cheap party decorations and the booze? Shamrocks. Christianity. Snakes, maybe. True Irishmen will tell you plenty of legends and tales surrounding the heroism and devotion of Saint Patrick. But that’s all most of them are: legends. Instead of basing our facts on hearsay, why don’t we look at the hard evidence we do have to come to firmer answers about who Saint Patrick really was? Would that not be the better way to celebrate his life and honor his memory?
So put down the pint glass for a few minutes and let’s honor a man who sacrificed much for Christianity and for Ireland. Let’s find out what he did that was worthy of a raised glass, and what people have made up or exaggerated over the years. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, especially when your drunken buddies tell it to you!
13. St. Patrick’s Day Was Invented by Irish-Americans, Not Irishmen
So what changed? How did such a quiet, religious holiday become the crazy, insane, wild drinking festival that it is today? When Irish immigrants began coming to the United States, they wanted a way to show pride for their home country. So they decided March 17th, usually a day for celebrating growth in Irish culture, would be the day they would celebrate their Irish heritage with parades and merry-making! Really, the party wasn’t for Saint Patrick; it was for Ireland! Nowadays, Saint Patrick’s Day is a party pretty much anywhere you go, thanks to Irish-Americans.
12. St. Patrick Was Not Irish
Yep. Saint Patrick wasn’t Irish. Patrick was born in what is now modern day United Kingdom (it’s uncertain whether he was from Wales, England, or Scotland, but we know it wasn’t Ireland) around the year 390 C.E. His home was attacked by Irishmen when he was sixteen and he was taken prisoner. They dragged him back to Ireland, where they kept him a prisoner and slave for six years. When he got free, he actually returned to England where he studied religion. He did eventually return to Ireland to spread the “Good Word” because a voice in his head told him Ireland needed him.
If we’re being really technical, Patrick wasn’t really British either. During this time period, England was under Roman rule. Maybe that’s just a technicality, but the Roman lifestyle and traditions are very different from what are considered British lifestyles and traditions. It’s worth noting that Patrick lived much of his life in a Roman household.
11. Prayers Instead Of Partying
Throughout most of history, Saint Patrick’s Day was a holiday celebrated only by Roman Catholics. It was a religious holiday, so it was absolutely not celebrated by drinking or partying. In fact, how we celebrate it today would have deeply offended a lot of people back then! Instead, it was celebrated with a day of prayer in church. Families would pay their respects and remembrances at a day long session in church, full of sermons, readings, and prayers. A feast would be had in the evening by everyone in the congregation, the families would go home, and they’d go to bed. No drinking, no partying. Pretty different from how things are today.
10. St. Patrick Didn’t Bring Christianity to Ireland
Yes, Patrick did study Christianity and then go to Ireland with the intent of spreading the religion, but that doesn’t mean he was the first person to actually bring the religion to Ireland. Many years before, Pope Celestine sent the Bishop Palladius to Ireland, so that he would be a resource to “the Irish believing in Christ;” meaning that there had been Irishmen that believed in Christ and Christianity for a long while before Saint Patrick ever found himself in Ireland. Sure, he certainly did bring over Christian teachings and converted much of the country to Christianity, no one doubts that. However, he was not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland.
9. Green Hasn’t Always Been Associated with St. Patty’s Day
We all associate the color green with Ireland and Saint Patrick’s Day. If someone on the holiday isn’t wearing green, they’ll be reprimanded. Green decorations are found in every bar and restaurant that’s open. Chicago even dyes its entire river green! But why green? It makes some sense, given the gorgeous emerald green landscape found throughout Ireland but, really, it has nothing else to do with Saint Patrick. In fact, knights in The Order of Saint Patrick actually wore blue. It’s likely that we started associating the color green with the holiday because Irishmen used it in their rallies and protests to represent their country when they were fighting for independence back in the 1700s.
8. Corned Beef Isn’t A Classic St. Patty’s Day Dish
There are two things you’re likely to consume on Saint Patrick’s Day that you wouldn’t necessarily order any other day of the year: a pint of Guinness and corned beef. It’s rarely questioned: why corned beef? Traditionally, Irishmen in their home country consume a salted pork similar to bacon to celebrate the day. So why are we eating corned beef? It’s because Irish immigrants in New York City couldn’t find their traditional plate, so they got corned beef instead (ironically, from their Jewish neighbors). Really, you’d be closer to Irish tradition if you were eating bacon with your Guinness. And really, doesn’t that sound so much tastier?
7. St. Patrick Didn’t Really Banish Snakes From The Emerald Isle
Legend has it that Saint Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland and that’s why you can’t find any in the country today. Since snakes, in biblical terms, were representative of evil and sin, it was symbolic of Saint Patrick driving the evil out of Ireland. While it is true that there are no snakes in Ireland, it is not because Saint Patrick scared them all away. There never were snakes in Ireland in the first place! How could there be? The cold water surrounding Ireland keeps them from migrating to Ireland from somewhere else, and the landscape wouldn’t be a healthy or supportive ecosystem for them.
6. St. Patrick Defeated Ancient Celtic Hero Oisin
Another odd legend about Saint Patrick is that he defeated a legendary warrior, Oisin, in a debate on religion and civilizations. As soon as the battle was won, Oisin died. It’s a story made to give Saint Patrick a more badass appearance. Really, none of this happened.
Oisin was a hero of folklore, comparable to a Pagan God or false idol. He was a legendary character, and the story forged about Saint Patrick defeating him was intended to symbolize Christianity’s triumph over Paganism. Really, did you expect that a 500-year-old Celtic Demi-God was a real man, or that they really had a debate and upon losing Oisin just dropped dead? Of course not! It is a cool story, though, which is why it was spread so easily.
5. St. Patrick Didn’t Design The Celtic Cross
Another tall tale is that Saint Patrick designed the Celtic cross in an effort to push Christianity further into Irish culture; he wanted them to fully integrate themselves in Christianity, and redesigning the cross to fit their Celtic art was a way of doing that. However, that’s a big old fat lie! Just like the shamrock, the idea of a cross was in Irish and Celtic culture long before it had affiliations with Christ. It was used more in showing the things that come in fours in life, such as directions (north, east, south, west) and elements (earth, wind, air, fire). The Celts liked their number games!
4. St. Patrick Didn’t Explain the Holy Trinity Using Shamrocks
Shamrocks aren’t just symbolizing the Irish countryside, when they are used in Saint Patrick’s Day decorations. It is said that St. Patrick tried to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to Irishmen and they didn’t understand what he was getting at; how could there be just one God if there were three? So, he bent to the ground, plucked a shamrock, and explained how the three make the one.
As interesting a story and keen metaphor this is, it’s unlikely Saint Patrick used it- it was just another story told by monks in his remembrance. In fact, it’s more likely that Saint Patrick didn’t encounter very many confused faces; Celtic thought holds that much of life is made up of threes. The shamrock is a beloved Irish symbol because it is an example of that.
3. A Shamrock Only Has Three Leaves – Not Four
Furthermore, we commonly confuse a shamrock with having four leaves instead of three. We grow up hearing about four-leaf clovers and it’s assumed that they are shamrocks, but they are absolutely not. It would be very confusing if Patrick were attempting to describe the Holy Trinity while using a four-leafed shamrock! What we commonly know as a shamrock is, in botanical terms, a trifolium minus; a small, yellowish tinted shamrock. When you see a correct shamrock, you’re looking at trifolium minus. When you see a four leafed one, you’re looking at something else entirely.
2. A Shamrock And A Clover Are Not the Same Thing
Even further, people confuse the basics of this plant! A shamrock is not a clover! We’ve always searched in clover covered fields for a lucky four-leaf clover. A four-leaf clover is actually a rare mutation of a shamrock, named by botanists as Oxalis Deppei. It naturally has an extra leaf. Why they are considered good luck is another story, but they aren’t shamrocks. When we use them on Saint Patrick’s Day, it’s likely because we are relating the “luck of the Irish” with lucky four-leafed clovers. However, they’re not the symbol Saint Patrick was said to have used. This is an icon used more to celebrate Irish culture than the Saint.
1. Patrick Wasn’t Even His Name
Finally, we get to the kicker: Patrick wasn’t even his real name. The saint was born with the name Maewyn Succat and, interestingly enough, he was not religious at all in his childhood. He formed his religious beliefs after he was kidnapped when he was sixteen. So where do we get the name Patrick? Well, it is possible that he had the name later in life. Perhaps it was thrust upon him when he was a slave, to make the pronunciation of his name easier. Perhaps he changed it when he was a slave or when he was being educated in religion as a way of showing that he was becoming a new man. Or maybe it’s just easier to remember him if we call him something that rolls off the tongue a bit better than Maewyn!