Saint Patrick’s Day is one of the most vibrant holidays to make its way to the shores of the United States—but where did it all begin?
Saint Patrick’s Day, surprisingly enough, did not truly begin in Ireland as many believe—it began in Britain. In the 5th Century, a 16-year-old British boy named Maewyn Succat was kidnapped by Irish marauders (at this point in history, Ireland as a civilized nation was just a few centuries in the making; it had seen only 3 reigning High Kings, interspersed with various tribe takeovers 1), and was used as a slave to shepherd sheep. Maewyn lived as a slave in a foreign land for six years, until what he described as a “vision” showed him the way to freedom. It was at this time that, according to his autobiographical confession, “The Confessio,” that he was able to understand the meaning of God:
“2 And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.
3 Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.” 2
After returning safely home to Britain, the boy had another “vision,” which called for him to return to Ireland and help its people. So, he became a Catholic priest, changed his name to Patricius (later, Patrick), and went to Ireland in the year 432 A.D. In “The Confessio,” Patrick wrote of the desire to build churches and schools along the Irish coast.
There are a few myths surrounding Patrick’s arrival in Ireland. One myth is that he was responsible for the expulsion of snakes from Ireland. This, although, impressive, was also impossible—due to geographic reasons, there were never any snakes on the isolated island of Ireland. Another myth is that Patrick taught the Irish of the Holy Trinity, the pinnacle of Catholic faith, using the three-leaved shamrock. This may have been possible, but is deemed unlikely, due to the lack of mention in Patrick’s detailed “Confessio.”
The reason that Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated annually on March 17th is debated. Many believe that this was the day on which he died. Although this date is contested, this holiday’s placement on the calendar had other “benefits” for the people of Ireland. March 17th falls towards the middle of Lent, the forty-day period before Easter during which Catholics give up their “vices” as penance. This timing allowed for a one-day break where the Irish Catholics are allowed to resume their pre-Lent lifestyle.
Throughout its rich history, Saint Patrick’s Day has undergone many changes–and even now, in both its native land as well as the nations it has traveled to, Saint Patrick’s Day continues to change. One of the only places in which the celebration of this holiday is a relatively constant affair is also one of the most popularly recognized for its March 17th festivities: New York.
- “A Timeline of Irish History.” Rootsweb. Ancestry.com, 06 May 2000. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~fianna/history/>. ↩
- “The “Confessio” of St. Patrick.” Catholic Information Network. Catholic Information Network, 01 Jan 2009. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.cin.org/patrick.html> ↩