A shamrock worn on the shirt or blouse. A mug of green beer. Traditional Irish music mingling with the laughter and shouts in a pub. Parades and pageants with Irish step dancing, leprechauns, and spectators decked out in green clothing.
The celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day is long entwined with the American past. The first such celebration in the New World occurred on March 17, 1601, in St. Augustine, Florida, possibly inspired by an Irish priest living in that outpost of Spain. Boston featured a St. Pat’s parade in 1737, with New York following suit in 1762. With the flood of immigrants to America from the Irish famine in the middle of the next century, the celebrations grew in size. Home to many of these immigrants, today Savannah sports the South’s largest celebration of this holiday. Since 1962, Chicago has dyed its river green to mark this annual event.
On March 17, everyone becomes an honorary son or daughter of Erin, welcome to join in the festivities and raise a glass of Guinness.
Which brings a question: Do these partygoers know who St. Patrick was or why they are celebrating the anniversary of his death? More importantly, do they understand the impact of this priest and bishop on Western culture?
Turn down that music in the pub, ask the revelers at the bar that first question, and you’ll likely hear that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Some may bring up the shamrock, now the national plant of Ireland, and claim that Patrick used it to teach the doctrine of the Trinity.
These are fine legends, but that is all they are: legends. The reality is much more powerful and exciting.
Slave and Priest
To begin, Patrick wasn’t Irish, but British. As we learn from his “Confession,” a spiritual memoir and defense of his work written much later in his life, Patrick was born into a wealthy family in the late fourth century. Reasonably well-educated, he was raised as a Christian, though as a youth he wasn’t particularly religious, and was 16 years old when Irish raiders attacked the estate where he lived. Bound and hauled off with others that night, he was taken to Ireland and made a slave.
For the next six years, Patrick herded sheep, alone much of the time and often hungry and cold. As time passed and he dreamed of home, he began to recover his faith. He prayed incessantly, fasted, and came to believe that God was communicating with him. According to his “Confession,” one night a voice in a dream told Patrick that a ship awaited him and the time had come to make his escape.
Patrick walked for days, arrived at the coast, joined the crew of a ship, and returned to Britain. After another long trek, he rejoined his family, who “besought me that now at last, having suffered so many hardships, I should not leave them and go elsewhere.” But the hardened young man of faith who returned home was worlds away from the boy seized by the slavers, and Patrick declared his intentions of entering the religious life. And not only did he wish to study for the priesthood, but the voice in his dreams also told him to return to Ireland and to bring the people to Christ.
Little is known about the next decade or so of his life. That he underwent training, becoming first a deacon and then a priest and bishop, is a given, but as Philip Freeman points out in his biography “St. Patrick of Ireland,” we can’t be sure of where, what, or with whom he studied.
What we do know is that Patrick returned to Ireland and became a bishop with a twofold mission: to minister to the tiny Christian community in that land and to bring as many of the Irish as possible to Christianity. He brought several advantages to this work. His enslavement had given him the ability to speak the language of the people and understand their ways, and he possessed a knack for incorporating their symbols and some of their customs into the faith. They honored their gods with fire, for instance, and so Patrick celebrated Easter with bonfires. To the cross he added a circle representing the sun, revered by the Irish, and so created the Celtic cross.
For years after his reentry into Ireland, Patrick roamed the countryside with a band of helpers and followers, building Christian communities and churches, founding monasteries, ordaining priests, dealing with various kings and warlords, and preaching the Gospels. His “Confession” recounts some of these undertakings, but above all reveals the depths of his spiritual life. His famous and beautiful “Breastplate” prayer reinforces this impression of fervent and sincere holiness.
Like so much of his life, the date and year of his death is debated, though March 17, A.D. 461, is accepted by most scholars. He is said to have been buried on the Hill of Down, Ireland.
Though the faithful credited Patrick with many miracles, including restoring the dead to life, his greatest miracles came in the centuries following his death. Because of his personal example and unceasing ministry, he left behind a flourishing religious faith that claimed the devotion of the Irish people and would eventually unite them, ending the wars between tribes and kings, and giving them the ability over many centuries to endure all manner of oppression and wars. Moreover, they became such passionate believers and scholars that they not only changed the culture of their island but also spread learning and the faith throughout parts of Europe.
Following in Patrick’s footsteps were priests, men and women who took vows and entered monasteries or convents, and saints. Brigid of Kildare, for instance, took vows of chastity and, with the help of a hermit priest, founded a church and a monastery. She was credited with performing many miracles, tending to the poor and the sick, and serving others whenever she could. Today, she is the patroness saint of Ireland.
Inspired by the accounts of martyrs in Rome, but absent any active persecution of Christians, other men and women sought “green martyrdom,” which consisted of practices of extreme penance so well described in Thomas Cahill’s book “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” They sought out remote places to live as hermits or in tiny communities, suffering privation on earth in the belief that it would prepare them for heaven.
Brendan, a founder of several monasteries, found a special way to practice this green martyrdom. Along with a few followers, he sailed into the ocean in a curragh, a small boat framed out in wood and covered with greased and sewn ox hides. Whether he and his men really set foot in lands as far away as Iceland or New England remains debatable, but in the mid-1970s Tim Severin and a crew of craftsmen and sailors demonstrated that to build such a craft and sail it across the Atlantic was possible. Today, Brendan is the patron saint of mariners.
Helping to Preserve Civilization
Like these “green martyrs,” a number of monks departed Ireland to serve as missionaries to parts of Europe, regarding this exile as their own form of self-sacrifice. As Patrick had done in Ireland, they spread the faith, learning, and monasteries to various parts of Europe. In his comprehensive article “Hearts and Minds Aflame for Christ—Irish Monks: A Model For Making All Things New in the 21st Century,” Daryl McCarthy discusses the immense value of the education carried by these monastics to places such as Germany, Gaul, and Scotland, as well as the aestheticism and devotion that so impressed the people they met.
Over the next 400 years, Irish monks were the backbone of education in Europe. “No land ever sent out such impassioned teachers of learning,” wrote Irish historian Alice Green in 1911, “and Charles the Great and his successors set them at the head of the chief schools throughout Europe.” These Irish monks are also renowned today for the manuscripts they preserved during the upheavals after the fall of the Roman Empire and the beautiful curvilinear art that decorates some of these ancient tomes.
When we raise our glasses this St. Patrick’s Day, let’s remember to offer a toast to the man who gave such valuable treasures to our civilization and our culture.