An Irishman in an English pub in London told me that Saint Patrick’s Day wasn’t celebrated until the 1970s when the Irish-Americans turned what was a minor holy day in Ireland into a revenue generating holiday in the States.
“Did the Americans invent Saint Patrick as well?” I asked.
He took a long draw of his beer and emptied the glass. “If you buy me another one of these, I’ll tell you the whole story, includin’ the part about Patrick…,” he leaned in a little closer and spoke in a hushed tone, “…being an Englishman.”
Around 390 AD Patrick was born to a well-to-do Christian family in England. When he was sixteen years old, he was kidnapped by Irish marauders who frequently raided the English coast looking for young men to enslave and put to work on the Irish isle. When Patrick was sent out to the mountainous countryside to tend flocks of sheep for his master he cared little about religion. But after six years of many cold, wet, and lonely days, Patrick found God. As he leaned on his newfound faith for solace, he would hear a voice in his dreams telling him how to escape back to England on a pirate ship. Following the voice’s instructions, Patrick was soon reunited with his family in England.
The voice that had guided Patrick home returned in his dreams urging him to become a priest and go back to Ireland and convert the people to Christianity. Patrick was chosen because his long enslavement had given him intimate knowledge of the language and of the tribal system that existed on the island.
As a priest, Patrick made his conversion efforts gradual. He cleverly presented the idea of one Christian God by superimposing it over the symbols of the multiple gods that were worshipped in Ireland at the time. This is why the Celtic cross has its distinctive circle, it’s a combination of the ubiquitous Christian symbol and the symbol of the Irish moon goddess.
The commonly told tale of Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, an island which has never actually had any snakes, is a metaphor. At the time “evil” was visually represented as a serpent. When Patrick introduced Christianity it is said that he cast all the illegitimate gods, or serpents, off the island.
Patrick’s Christian mission was not an easy one. He was beaten, harassed, and ultimately forgotten after his death on March 17th 461. In wasn’t until centuries later that a mythos formed around the legend of Patrick, and he was raised up as the patron Saint of Ireland.
Tonight, toss one down for Patrick, the Englishman who became the Saint of Ireland.