“Every country has a St. Paddy’s Day, but here in Ireland we have St. Paddy’s Week!”
No school this week, we’re off for a “study break”. Which only makes sense, due to the fact that a week of celebrations would probably inhibit lecture attendance anyway. 😉
Other than the need for wearing green so that I didn’t get pinched at school, I never knew much about the holiday. Since I’m living in Ireland during the holiday this year, it seemed like a perfect time to find out.
Who was St. Patrick?
The patron saint of Ireland was born in the 5th century, a son of wealthy British. Some sources reference that his given name was Maewyn Succat (but I’ll stick with Patrick). Patrick was captured by Irish raiders at the age of 16. He was taken to Ireland where he remained in captivity for six years. During this time, he worked as a shepherd, outdoors and away from people. Lonely and afraid, he turned to his religion for solace, becoming a devout Christian. (It is also believed that Patrick first began to dream of converting the Irish people to Christianity during his captivity.)
According to Patrick’s writings, he escaped after God spoke to him in a dream, telling him it was time to leave Ireland. After returning to Britain, he writes about a second dream where an angel told him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Patrick became an ordained priest (after 15 years of study) and was sent to Ireland with a dual mission; to minister to the Christians who were already living in Ireland and to begin to convert the Irish. This dual mission contradicts the widely-held belief that Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland.
[singlepic=30,320,240,,left]Most of the Irish practiced a nature-based pagan religion and Patrick, familiar with the Irish language and culture, chose to incorporate familiar symbols into his teachings. He superimposed the sun (a powerful Irish symbol) over the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross in order to make it more familiar to the Irish.
A commonly held myth is that Patrick banished all of the snakes from Ireland. In truth, there never were any snakes on the island. The “banishing of the snakes” is a metaphor for the triumph of Christianity and the eradication of pagan worship from Ireland. The island was completely Christianized within 200 years of Patrick’s arrival.
[singlepic=34,320,240,,right]What do “seamroy” (as the Celts called them) have to do with St. Patrick? Nothing so far as I can tell. The Celts saw them as a sacred plant, symbolizing the rebirth of spring. As the English began to seize Irish land and outlaw against the use of Irish language and the practice of Catholicism in the seventeenth century, many Irish began to wear the shamrock as a symbol of pride in their heritage.
Corned Beef & Cabbage
[singlepic=31,320,240,,left]Where does this tradition come from? The United States, of all places! Cabbage has long been a traditional Irish food, with bacon (pork) being the common meat. Upon arrival in America, Irish immigrants found salted beef (often corn-sized grains of salt were rubbed into the meat to cure it, hence the name) to be a cheaper and more readily avialable option than the pork they were familiar with. While both cabbage and salted meat have historic relations with Ireland, St. Patrick’s day celebrations did not include any traditional foods until the early 1900’s. It was around this time that Irish Americans began to include corned beef and cabbage as a tradition.
[singlepic=32,320,240,,left]Leprechauns also have nothing to do with St. Patrick. Celts believed in fairies, tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. They were called “lobaircin,” meaning “small-bodied fellow.” In Celtic folktales, leprechauns were cranky souls, responsible for mending the shoes of the other fairies. Though only minor figures in Celtic folklore, leprechauns were known for their trickery, which they often used to protect their much-fabled treasure. It wasn’t until Disney’s film in 1959 called Darby O’Gill & the Little People that Americans were introduced to a very different sort of leprechaun. This cheerful, friendly leprechaun is a purely American invention, but has quickly evolved into an easily recognizable symbol of both St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland in general.
March 17th is believed to be the date of Patrick’s death and became his feast day. So far as I have found, Patrick was never officially canonised (sainted) by a Pope, but was declaired a Saint in Heaven (he is in the List of Saints) by a number of churches. He is still widely venerated in Ireland and elsewhere today.
You might be asking “How should I celebrate?” It’s taken many years for most of our St. Patrick’s Day traditions to be established. Now that you know more of their origins, you can better appreciate them, and partake in them! Make a traditional bacon and cabbage meal, watch the parade (complete with leprechauns and shamrocks) and enjoy a pint of your favorite beverage.