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On the 17th March each year, countries around the world pay homage to the patron saint of Ireland through the means of parades, feasts, festivals and numerous other forms of revelry and merrymaking.
Towns and cities from Belfast to Buenos Aires are awash with every shade of green, the consumption of Guinness increases to 13 million pints and there are cries of “lá fhéile pádraig sona dhuit!” in streets, pubs and bars.
St Patrick’s Day is now, essentially, a global phenomenon, with millions of people embracing their Irish heritage or just becoming Irish for the day and joining in the festivities.
Lauded as the man who drove the snakes out of Ireland, converted the pagans to Christianity and gave the shamrock it’s cultural significance, St Patrick is a well-known figure in Irish history, but how much is actually known about the man behind the myths?
Read on to discover fascinating facts and myths about St Patrick…
Born around 380 AD, St Patrick was actually named Maewyn Succat. He is thought to have been a member of the Roman nobility, the son of Conchessa and Calpornius, a Roman deacon and tax collector. Historians are undecided as to exactly where he was born, but agree it must have been in either what is now modern-day Scotland or Wales.
St Patrick’s Day was recognised as early as the 10th century, but it wasn’t until 1631 that the date was officially added to the Church calendar by the Pope. This was mainly due to the tireless efforts of Luke Wadding, a Franciscan Monk from County Waterford who petitioned the Vatican for official recognition of the date.
From the 17th-20th century, St Patrick’s Day remained a primarily religious event in Ireland. It was a quiet day without any parades or public events. It wasn’t until an Act was passed in 1903 that 17th March became a designated Bank Holiday in Ireland.
St Patrick’s Day Celebration as we know them originated from the US not Ireland. In 1737, a group of elite Irish men celebrated their patron saint over dinner and 29 years later the tradition of parading began, as the Irish Catholic members of the British Army marched through the streets of New York on the 17th March.
Parading only began in Ireland during the 1920’s. The years between the 1920’s and 1950’s saw a St Patrick’s Day celebrated by Mass in the morning and a military parade at midday. Shockingly, all pubs and bars in Ireland were banned from opening on St Patrick’s Day until the mid-1960’s.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that entertainment and parades of floats were introduced in Dublin, by 1996 this had transformed into the four-day St Patrick’s Day Festival that attracts roughly half a million people to the city’s streets.
Irish Marauder Niall of the Nine Hostages took the boy from his family estate and sold him as a slave to druid landowner Meliuc in County Antrim. He tended to his owner’s sheep for 6 years until he reportedly had a dream in which God told him to flee the country, even telling him which boat to board in order to escape. Afterwards he spent 15 years undertaking strict religious study in Gaul, now modern-day France.
Maewyn Succat was renamed ‘Patricius’ or ‘Patrick’ (meaning father or nobleman) by Pope Celestine I at the end of his training. Saint Patrick then embarked on his missionary duties in Ireland.
Throughout this time St Patrick was incarcerated, beaten and attacked while attempting to spread his message, although towards the end of his career it appeared that he had become much more popular, having founded a number of churches and schools under the Christian faith.
All over Ireland, there are locations linked to St Patrick. The Rock of Cashel in Country Tipperary and Croagh Patrick in County Mayo are amongst the most famous. It is also possible to follow the St Patrick’s Trail in Northern Ireland, in which you can visit the two Cathedrals in Armagh that are dedicated to the patron saint, as well as the St Patrick Centre in County Down and Saul Church.
St Patrick was not an esteemed member of the Church during his lifetime. It was believed that he used funds that should have been fed back into the Church to bribe Irish leaders to allow him safe passage, a necessity to move unmolested through Ireland’s tribal borders.
Towards the end of his years, he wrote Confessio, in which he defends himself against the slander and charges of corruption, at the same time admitting his failings and imperfections. The Confessio and his Epistle to the Soldiers of Coroticus are the only surviving writings of St Patrick.
While it is believed St Patrick passed away n 461 AD, it is uncertain whether this was actually on the 17th March or if the date was combined with a Pagan celebration of the time (as was common practice within the Church). It is told that he died in Saul, County Down, and is buried in the grounds of Down Cathedral, Down Patrick.
This had already occurred in previous years thanks to both the attempts of previous members of the Christian Church to indoctrinate the Irish people and Irish merchants who had traveled to British shores and come into contact with the religion, taking it back to their homeland.
It is commonly told that Saint Patrick banished all of the snakes from Ireland, purportedly chasing the reptiles into the sea after they began to attack him while he was undertaking a 40-day-long fast at the top of the hill.
There is no scientific evidence that snakes were ever native to Ireland but if they were, they were wiped out by the ice age, leading many historians to believe that the snakes of this story were in fact symbolic of the Druids.
This reasoning has again been contested because Saint Patrick’s hagiographies did not include this particular miracle until the 11th century, making it appear that this may have been added in order to make his conversion of the pagans seem more impressive than it was.
Considering the sea of green-clothing-clad revelers and bounty of emerald-coloured food and beverages that appear on the 17th of March each year, you would be forgiven for incorrectly thinking that green is the official colour of Ireland or St Patrick’s Day.
Surprisingly, blue is actually Ireland’s national colour, with shades appearing on the Irish coat of arms – a golden harp on a blue background. The official colour of The Order of St Patrick is also a shade of sky blue.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the colour green began to be associated with the country, often linked with politics and independence. Before this the colour was believed to be bad luck as it was thought to be favoured by the fairy folk.
The symbol of the shamrock has been inextricably linked with Saint Patrick and his religious teachings; it is told that he used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to the druids.
However, this story has only come about in the past 400 years or so, a great deal of time since the patron saint’s death. The shamrock was also already a sacred plant to the Druids before Saint Patrick due to three being a significant number to the religion.
The symbol of the shamrock is also not the official emblem of Ireland. That position is reserved by the medieval symbol of the Celtic harp, found on Irish Euro coins, passports, the presidential seal as well as other important official documents.
If you’re thinking of celebrating St Patrick’s Day on the Emerald Isle, take a look at our range of hand-picked holiday cottages in Ireland. For travel tips and ideas for your next trip, take a look at our Ireland Travel Guide for information on where to stay and what to do in Ireland.
Images courtesy of: Andreas F. Borchert
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