The Man and the Myth
Missionary Bishop St. Patrick Was No Leprechaun
How much of what we do on St. Patrick’s Day is actually associated with the man St. Patrick? Turns out very little, actually.
Green beer? Leprechauns? Pinching? “Paddy” would say “Blarney—I wasn’t even born in Ireland!”
To the Irish in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a traditional day for spiritual renewal and offering prayers for missionaries worldwide. In Ireland, the day is celebrated by attending mass and praying for missionaries. All businesses are closed (except restaurants and pubs) and people celebrate most of the day like we would celebrate a lesser holiday.
At the age of 16, British-born ethnically Roman Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland as a slave. He lived there as a shepherd and became deeply religious in his time of suffering. He prayed that God would return him to his homeland.
After escaping home to Britain, he had a dream that the people of Ireland were calling him back to save them. Believing this to be a call by God, Patrick returned to Ireland to preach the Good News.
Most of what we know about Patrick can be found in two major writings: his Confessions—a defense against his critics in Britain—and his Letter to Coroticus , a letter to an Irish warlord he had been forced to excommunicate. The prayer attributed to him, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, shows how his faith in God was what protected him from harm while spreading the Word.
Faithful legends veil deeper truths
One of the most popular legends about St. Patrick is that by his preaching he drove all the snakes in the country into bottomless wells or lakes. This would have been very easy for him to do as there never were any snakes in Ireland. The island has been separated from the rest of Europe since the ice age.
However the legend is symbolic: Wells or lakes allude to baptism. Patrick did baptize many pagan Celts. Snakes were worshipped by many pagan religions so “driving them out” represents how Patrick drove out the religion of ‘false gods.’
May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, May the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rain fall soft upon your fields,and until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Another faithful legend is the story of St. Patrick using the shamrock to teach about the Trinity. It is said he would pick a shamrock, or clover, and compare its three leaves to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He used common objects to convert the Celts: rocks, earth, sun, sky, even Druid symbols, to speak of God. This was one reason why he was so successful in converting much of the country.
Over time, this beloved priest and bishop has been claimed by both Catholic and Protestant Irish, American Irish. He is the patron saint of Nigeria (and was probably the first church leader ever to speak out against slavery). Celebrated by New Agers, he is also a darling of the Gay and Lesbian community in the United States.
On March 17th, “Everyone is Irish.” And everyone loves St. Patrick.
For more on St. Patrick, visit AmericanCatholic.org.