The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Saint Patrick
It’s March and you know what that means: Saint Patrick’s Day is just around the corner! This month on the SRL blog, we’ll be covering all things to do with (as the Irish would prefer we stop calling it…) St. Patty’s Day and all the celebrations of Irish heritage it invokes. And while March 17th probably conjures images of green beer and leprechauns, you probably don’t know quite as much about the holiday’s namesake: the mysterious Saint Patrick.
We might be calling this post “Irish Mythology,” but first, the facts: St. Patrick was real, but he wasn’t Irish. The man who would eventually be canonized was actually born Maewyn Succat in Roman Britain (though some sources would argue Scotland or Wales—it was a long time ago, after all) into a prosperous family. During his teen years, his father’s villa was attacked by Irish raiders and St. Patrick was abducted and sold into slavery. St. Patrick spent 6 or 7 difficult years as a slave and herdsman in the cold, wet fields of Ireland before he dreamed of his escape: a voice told him to make a run for the coast. It worked, and St. Patrick was able to return home.
However, St. Patrick’s time in Ireland had deeply affected him, and caused him to not only become a fervent Catholic, but to return to the place of his captivity on a mission of good works. While St. Patrick’s many writings are often incoherent (his Latin is comparatively poor to others of his time,) scholars agree they all hold a pure conviction to help the people of Ireland through his religion. While it’s easy to dismiss this as typical missionary work these days, St. Patrick did this at severe risk to his person—he was “cast into chains” at least once and often had to hide for fear of his life—because he believed he had heard “the voice of the Irish” calling to him. He continued this work of converting his former captors until his death in 461 in Saul, Co. Down near the site of his first church at the mouth of the Slaney River. St. Patrick is buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick and is visited to this day on March 17th as a “traditional day for spiritual renewal.”
What’s still best known about St. Patrick are the myths surrounding him: the shamrocks and the snakes. In a Sunday School tale often still told today, St. Patrick used Ireland’s native shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity to his converts. With those three leaves (which is typical—making four so rare and lucky!) that are connected by a singular stem, the shamrock became a real-world analogy for God’s multifaceted presence in the Christian faith (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit—both separate and the same.) Whether or not St. Patrick was actually the first to teach this, it’s a helpful physical example to explain the concept!
And now, the biggest myth: the snakes! If you know only one thing about St. Patrick, it’s that he was the pied piper of snakes, driving all the serpents of Ireland into the sea. If you’ve heard about Adam and Eve, it’s not too hard to figure out the allegory here—by being largely responsible for the conversion of the Irish from Paganism to Christianity, St. Patrick was thought (from the perspective of the times) to have driven the “evil” off the island. This is something we can definitively prove is a myth, as there is not a single geological record of a snake ever existing naturally in Ireland—after all, the island broke off from mainland Europe during the Ice Age and the cool climate isn’t particularly suitable for a cold-blooded creature.
There are many lesser-known, but no less miraculous miracles said to be performed by St. Patrick—above all, the raising of the dead. St. Patrick claims in his own writings to have raised at least 33 people from death (notably Jesus’s age at his time of death,) and also apparently had healing powers. His prayers were said to have caused everything from a wolf returning a lamb to him unharmed and a herd of swine appearing to feed a hungry crowd in a deserted area to uncovering deceits and smiting blasphemers—all of which may be clear metaphors for the religion he stood for, but are stated as fact in the earliest known records of them. Having taken place in the 5th century—there’s no way to know for sure!
One more surprising St. Patrick fact? The color traditionally associated with him wasn’t green, but blue. It’s a lighter, azure-like blue still often called “St. Patrick’s Blue” and can be seen on older Irish flags, as well as on the emblem of the Irish Citizen Army, who attempted to end British rule in 1916 with the infamous Easter Rising. By the time the Irish Citizen Army used this blue as their symbol, it was already fading in fashion as St. Patrick’s color simply due to the fact that Ireland is a truly green country. As early as the 1798 Irish Rebellion, the “wearing of the green” (a shamrock on the lapel) became a nationalistic practice and eventually came to be associated with St. Patrick, but bits of blue can still be seen…the Presidential Flag of Ireland, for instance!
No matter your religion, St. Patrick was a man of strong convictions, devoted to serving a country he saw as needing his help and spiritual (truly, moral) guidance. Instead of hating his former captors, the people who had kidnapped him and worked him to the bone, he returned with kindness in his heart. Remove Catholicism from the story and you’re still left with something to celebrate: St. Patrick’s Day isn’t only a celebration of Ireland, but a celebration, just as spring is arriving, of awakening, forgiveness, and new beginnings to come.
This is Volume IV of a series. Read our last installment all about Irish love stories here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Find all of our latest news on our Scoil Rince Luimni Facebook page!