The Mysterious St. Patrick
Once again St. Patrick’s Day is upon us. For most, it is a day of celebration, particularly if you are of Irish heritage. Even if you aren’t, no one will fault you for fibbing a bit on this day, if only to earn a free kiss or two. Revelers will drink green beer, wear green clothes, and in places like Chicago, even entire rivers will be turned green for the holiday. Parades will be held, songs will be sung, and the Irish will be royalty, all in memory of St. Patrick.
But, what is known of this most celebrated Saint? How much of the lore meets up with the facts? Was St. Patty even Irish?
The quick answer to the last question is no. Not by birth. St. Patrick was actually born in Britain around 390 A.D. He came into this world as the child of well to do parents, who were strict Christians and lived in a fancy home. His family owned many slaves and several properties. He wanted for very little. And, he was decidedly not a Christian himself.
When Patrick was 16, he was kidnapped and kept as a slave, forced to tend sheep and work hard. During the trials of captivity, Patrick underwent a religious conversion, and became a devout Christian.
As the story goes, Patrick began to hear voices while being held captive in Ireland. The voiced urged him to escape, and escape he did, returning to his family. Although he was glad to be free, he felt compelled to return to the place of his captivity to spread Christianity. Soon, that is exactly what he did. He returned to Ireland, became a priest, and began the process of evangelizing the country. Along the way he was beaten, robbed, and harassed. Even the Irish royalty gave him a hard time. He passed away on March 17, 461. Very few remembered him. He was no hero or martyr to the people of that time. But, somehow over time, a legend grew up around him, and eventually he was given the title of Patron Saint of Ireland.
Most of the major myths about St. Patrick are likely tall tales. For example, it is true that to this day, there are no snakes in Ireland. But this is not thanks to being driven out by Patrick. The truth is that there never were snakes in Ireland. Being surrounded on all sides by icy cold ocean would prohibit them from ever migrating there from the mainland. Most likely, the snake story was created to symbolize St. Patrick driving evil out of Ireland. Snakes are commonly symbolized as evil incarnate in Christian lore.
While St. Patrick’s Day has long been celebrated quietly by the Irish, it was largely popularized as a day for revelry by Americans. In fact, it is estimated that over 13 million pints of Guiness are consumed on St. Patty’s day, more than double the regular daily average. It is also likely thanks to Americans that people wear green on March 17, as it was long considered to be an unlucky color in Ireland. They believed that if you wore too much green, you’d be in danger of being kidnapped by fairies, who favored the color.
The legend of St. Patrick lives on. There are more myths surrounding the man than are commonly known. For instance, not only do believers claim that he banished snakes from Ireland, they also believe that he rid the Isle of a great Lake Monster. Supposedly, after slaying the beast, the water was stained red, and the Lake is to this day known as Red Lake, or Lough Derg. Pilgrims still flock to the lake in hopes that the journey will rid them of their sins.
Patrick also supposedly cured a man of blindness. After the man was cured, an individual who had once teased him for being blind, turned blind himself.
A particularly interesting story attributed to St. Patrick regarded his stance on marriage. At the time, women were to wait for a man to propose to them. If no one ever proposed marriage to a woman, she would simply remain unmarried. This was a rule upheld by St. Bridget. St. Patrick thought that this law was silly, and revised it to say that women could propose marriage themselves, but only on a leap year. The very next year, a leap year, St. Bridget proposed to St. Patrick himself.