The Truth about St. Patrick’s Day

March 17-23, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 10
The Truth about St. Patrick’s Day
By Sara Vollmer/ SUN contributing writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Leprechauns, pots o’ gold and green beer are likely the first things that come to one’s mind when thinking of St. Patrick’s Day. It is doubtful many know the true reason why St. Patrick was celebrated during Syracuse’s 23rd annual parade this year.

Some may speculate that St. Patrick is renowned for driving the snakes out of Ireland. Others may suggest that he used a shamrock to teach about the Holy Trinity. But these are simply myths; St. Patrick wasn’t Irish himself, nor was his real name Patrick. In fact, Ireland has never had any snakes. It is thought that the snakes were really a symbol for pagan beliefs. And although St. Patrick did teach of the Holy Trinity, there is no actual verification that he used shamrocks while doing so.

St. Patrick, born Maewyn Succat in approximately 373 A.D., lived with his well-off family in the village of Bamavern Taberniaei, Britain. His father, Calpornius, held civic and clerical offices. But the Roman Empire was weak at this time, and when Maewyn was 16 years of age, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland to be sold into slavery among Irish chieftains.

While he tended sheep for six years on the Slemish Mountains, Maewyn found comfort in God. In his autobiographical Confession, he wrote: “In a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and almost as many in the night…. I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me — as now I see, because the spirit within me was fervent.” Though he was born into a Christian family, Maewyn didn’t consider himself religious at this point in his life.

One night a voice spoke to him in his dreams, saying, “Thy ship is ready for thee.” Maewyn felt this was a sign from God telling him to run away. So he fled the next night, escaping by ship. He returned to Britain and then went to Gaul to study under St. Germain for 12 years. He returned again to Britain afterwards, where he felt a calling in another dream to return to Ireland as a missionary. “The voice of the Irish… they call me most unmistakably with words which I heard but could not understand, except that… He spoke thus: ‘He that has laid down His life for thee, it is He that speaketh in thee;’ and so I awoke full of joy.” (from his Confessions).

Maewyn — who changed his name to Patrick (or Patricus, Latin for “well-born”) after he became a priest — began his mission to convert the Irish to Christianity in 430 A.D. Ireland was then pagan, a polytheistic religion that practiced idolatry. Because St. Patrick was not well educated, he was reluctantly sent to Ireland, only after the previous missionary had died. He first went to the home of his former owners, but the chieftain set fire to his own house and killed himself to avoid being shamed by St. Patrick.

Though this hasn’t proven to be factual, it is said that St. Patrick then went to Ireland’s high king in Tara during the time of Easter, where local kings and druids were celebrating the pagan feast of Beltine. He camped outside of the castle to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection instead. Patrick lit a large bonfire, which angered the people; their custom was that the high king should light the first bonfire before all others. St. Patrick was brought before the king, and said to him, “May God arise and His enemies be scattered.” Supposedly, the campgrounds became dark, and the confused guards attacked one another. The next day, on Easter, the king surrendered to St. Patrick.

Whether or not that heroic tale is true, it is certain that St. Patrick spent 30 years converting the men and women of Ireland to Christianity. He succeeded in baptizing tens of thousands and establishing hundreds of churches. But this was not an easy task; he faced many hardships and dangers, including being imprisoned twice. He wrote his famous Letter to Coroticus (British King of Alcuid), condemning him and his soldiers for killing many Irish that had just been baptized. He wrote in his Confession, “Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity, but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven.”

Ireland became predominantly Christian within a century. They were able to send missionaries to the countries of Scotland, England, Germany and Belgium as well. Near the end of his life, St. Patrick wrote, “Those who never had knowledge of God but worshipped idols… have now become… sons of God.” He died on March 17, 460 A.D.

This is the day St. Patrick is celebrated, though the way Americans celebrate is much different from the rest of the world. While in Dublin there is a week of festivities, their past celebrations on St. Patrick’s day have been quiet and religious. The Irish traditionally attend church and pray on this day, while the U.S. tends to celebrate with parades (which began in the 1700’s), a surge of ethnic pride and alcoholic consumption. (In contrast, pubs in Ireland used to close on St. Patrick’s Day until about 30 years ago when they opened for tourists.) Many Americans dress themselves in green clothing and even eat and drink green food and beverages, including the ever-popular green beer.

This year, in Syracuse, South Salina Street was closed for 30 minutes on Friday, March 11 for its annual “Painting of the Green Stripe” for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The theme of the parade, held March 12, was “Heroes in Uniform.” Bertie Ahern, T.D., Prime Minister (Taoiseach) of Ireland, was scheduled to visit Syracuse for the first time on Tues., March 15 at Congressman Jim Walsh’s invitation. There was an awarding of the honorary Doctor of Laws degree at Le Moyne College followed by a formal address by the Prime Minister at the Panasci Family Chapel on the Le Moyne College campus. The Prime Minister then traveled to New York City and Washington to celebrate festivities in each city for St. Patrick’s Day.

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