St. Patrick's Day is probably the best known of the many popular Saint's days throughout the year. In Ireland it is known as Trefuilnid Treochair, the national day of Ireland; where sports events, parades, wearing of the shamrock, dancing and, of course, drinking are the order of the day.
According to most sources, St. Patrick was born around 385 C.E. under Roman rule. His birthplace has been given as either southern Wales or Somerset, but was most likely near Dumbarton, Scotland. His given name was Maewyn and although born to Christian parents, he was said to have thought of himself as pagan. At about the age of 16 he was kidnapped from his father's farm by Picts and sent to Ireland. Brought to Antrim, he was sold to Meliuc, a local land owner, who put him to work on a mountain as a shepherd.
He escaped from this misery after six years, and was returning to Britain when he was taken captive by a gang of marauders who temporarily returned him to slavery. After a couple months he was able to free himself and spent the next several years traveling in Europe while trying to determine his mission in life.
After arriving in Gaul, and assuming his Christian name, Patrick, he studied for awhile at the Lerin Monastery, followed by several years with the bishop of Auxerre, St. Germain. It was during this time that he found his true calling which was to return to Ireland and convert pagans to Christianity. He then returned to Britain, where against the wishes of his friends and relatives, was determined to return to Ireland to carry out his mission. The church authorities sent St. Palladius instead, and it was another two years before Patrick was appointed second bishop to Ireland, in about 432 C.E.
He spent nearly 30 years preaching to pagan tribes, training clergy, baptizing about 100,000 people, and establishing over 300 Christian monasteries throughout Ireland. In fact, so many people turned to God that Ireland became known as the Isle of Saints. The Celtic Druids were not too delighted with his success at attracting converts and he was arrested, but subsequently escaped, several times. He retired in County Down, where he died on 17 March 461 C.E., a date which has ever since been celebrated as the feast of St. Patrick.
Like many holidays, St. Patrick's Day is associated with its fair share of mythical folklore. For example, it is considered foreboding for the day to fall on Palm Sunday. Also, at one point in his career, St. Patrick was said to have delivered a sermon from a hilltop that drove all the snakes from Ireland. Not a bad idea, but apparently there have never been snakes in Ireland. He is also said to have raised people from the dead. A more reliable story tells how St. Patrick would use the three-leafed shamrock to illustrate how the holy Trinity could exist as independent portions of the whole. As a result, his followers began putting shamrocks on their lapels for St. Patrick's Day, a custom still seen today. Another tradition involves the blarney stone which can be found at Blarney Castle, near Cork, Ireland. It is said to impart skill in flattery to anyone who kisses it. In America, the newly arriving Irishmen adopted the holiday in 1737 C.E., when it was first celebrated in Boston, and now more than 100 cities hold St. Patrick's Day parades.
It should be no surprise that St. Patrick unwittingly passed away on what used to be a pagan holiday. In more ancient times 17 March ended Dionysia, the 2-day festival of the Greek god Dionysus, the Dying God of Vegetation. Plays were performed and bulls were sacrificed. It was primarily a daytime festival, but as with many other Dionysian festivals, wild nocturnal orgies were common. Dionysus was said to have spent time at Delphi, while Apollo was away, where he was affiliated with the cult of souls, which later became ritualistic festivals for propitiation of the dead, or in our current paradigm, All Soul's Day on 02 November.
In ancient Ireland, 17 March ended the Celtic month of Nuin, or ash; which then commenced the month of Fearn, representing the alder tree. In past times, this day celebrated the feast for the trident-bearing Celtic divinity "the triple bearer of the triple key," whose sacred plant was the shamrock. Eventually this tradition was amalgamated with the St. Patrick we all know and love.
SOURCES: The Aquarian Dictionary of Festivals (1990) by J.C. Cooper o The Celts (1986) by Frank Delaney o The Church Triumphant (1988) by Nate Krupp o Eerdmans' Handbook to the History of Christianity (1977) by Editor Tim Dowley o Encyclopaedia of Religion and Religions (1958) by E. Royston Pike o The Pagan Book of Days (1992) by Nigel Pennick o The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1991) by Ronald Hutton o The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic (1899) by W. Warde Fowler o Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (1996) o The World Book Encyclopedia (1988)
Note: This is an excerpt of a pending book entitled "The Hidden History of Holidays." If you would like to be notified when it becomes available fill out the form below.
This book is being written one holiday at a time:
Other book projects include Mystery of America and Secrets We Live By (Pending).
Tédd is an author, lecturer, researcher, videographer, and amongst other interests is writing several books on a variety of topics.