Faith and begorrah, it is Saint Patty’s Day! A time for revelry and celebration of all those smiling Irish eyes! But is it really?
What exactly is the story behind Saint Patrick’s Day? Well, it is not what you may assume. It didn’t even start in Ireland!
The man we refer to as “Saint Patrick” was born around 370 c.e. in Scotland. His name was Maewyn, the son of a Roman Briton called Calpurnius. As a teenager, Maewyn was captured during a raid and sold into slavery to an Irish landowner.
In Ireland, Maewyn was tasked with being a shepherd. As a young man, he began to have what he referred to as “religious visions”, including one wherein he was shown how to escape his slave master. The plan was effective and Maewyn escaped to, at first Britain, and then to France. In France, he joined and studied in a monestary. Following his education, his visions showed him that the people of Ireland needed him to free them from their bonds of paganism. Yes, he needed to free the Irish from the hold that paganism had on them and bring them to Christianity.
So off he went to Ireland where he changed his name (possibly because he was technically an escaped slave) to Patraic, which means “father of the people” in the Gaelic tongue. With the blessing of the Pope, Maewyn (now Patrick) began his mission of converting the Irish pagans to good, god-fearing Christians.
Symbols And Legends
It is Patrick who popularized the Shamrock, using the three leaves which constitute one flower to symbolize the holy trinity being three separate entities and yet remaining a whole. Patrick also added the sun, a beloved pagan-Irish symbol to the Christian cross – creating what is today referred to as the “Celtic Cross”.
But what about the legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland? Well, that isn’t exactly what happened. The climate of the Emerald Isle is not conducive to a snake habitat. So, the reason there are no snakes native to Ireland is because there were no snakes IN Ireland. The “snakes” referred to in the legend are actually something that Patrick did in fact eradicate…the Irish pagans! St. Patrick is celebrated in the Christian world of today because he literally ended the traditional pagan belief structure of the original Celts. So, needless to say, many modern pagans refuse to celebrate the forced replacement of an ancient belief system with a newer one and, in protest, will wear snake pins on St. Patrick’s Day.
But surely the cute leprechaun is a tried and true traditional Irish symbol, right? Um…nope. Sorry. We actually have two huge corporations to thank for that one. Disney and General Mills. In 1959, Walt Disney released the movie Darby O’Gill And The Little People. The movie was based around a wily Irishman and his battle of wits with leprechauns. It was this movie that brought leprechauns into the consciousness of the Western world.
Then, in 1964, General Mills challenged its product developers to come up with a new and exciting idea using the same basic ingredients as Cheerios. John Holahan was the “lucky” winner by using Cheerios extruded into a different shape and adding chopped up circus peanuts (those orange marshmallow candies that we all remember from our childhood). The cereal was rebranded to include a cute leprechaun as the spokesman and the marshmallows were given “traditional” magical shapes and off it went to cause cavities for generations to come. It was the combination of the popular Disney movie and the Irish-accented Lucky the Leprechaun that launched the little fae creatures into the St. Patrick’s Day mix. Now, yes leprechauns were previously a part of Irish folklore, but they were very minor characters seen as little red tricksters who would pinch you for not wearing a scrap of green clothing. (Yes, leprechauns were originally pictured as red! They only went full green to associate them with the Emerald Isle for export).
Ouch. That hit me right in the childhood!
Parties And Parades Of Today
Now, as for the holiday itself. First of all, it is extremely young in its current form. The first known Saint Patrick’s Day Parade was held in the mid 17th century in St. Augustine, Florida, which was then under Spanish rule. The first American parade was in 1737 in Boston, Massachusetts. Only later did the holiday emigrate to Ireland. Before that time, March 17th was treated as a somber, religious day in Ireland, with most businesses including pubs remaining closed as it was the anniversary of the death of St. Patrick. It was embraced by the Irish in its current form because, quite frankly, it was a great money-maker. The Irish were able to draw tourism from and sell an entire holiday to the world…and it continues today!
In The End
Is it good? Is it bad? I suppose that depends on who you ask. An entire nation has embraced the pageantry of St. Patrick’s Day and have exported a day of revelry and fun to the entire world, even if it does water down their own history a bit. It was actually St. Patrick’s Day that helped to overcome the poverty and despair which followed the potato famine! Of course, for those with Pagan beliefs it is definitely not so much a great day. But, then again, you could always clip on a snake lapel pin or brooch and enjoy a green beer at your local pub and a bowl of Lucky Charms. Today, we are all Irish.