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The Meaning behind St. Patrick’s Day

Not intending to ruin any fun with history but we couldn’t let the upcoming Holiday go without making a few comments about Saint Patrick and the annual holiday that’s held in his honor. Most of the people we know will be wearing green in some form, thinking of all things Irish, drinking green beer, and possibly honoring that ancient Irish tradition of getting drunk and fighting (We love our Irish Patrons so merely tongue and cheek). In other words, Saint Patrick’s Day is a good excuse for partying, and few people will put any more thought into it than that. That’s fine. It’s a secular holiday in the United States, much like Christmas, that has only the vaguest hints of its religious underpinnings still intact, even if the day is named after a Roman-British Catholic bishop and missionary, and so it should all be taken with a grain of salt. Go forth and party. Have a good time. Build for yourself the pending hangover as that’s what it’s all about, right?

If most people know anything about Saint Patrick, it’s that his one claim to fame is that he drove the snakes from Ireland. What most people don’t realize is that the snake is a Pagan symbol, and that the snakes referred to in the Saint Patrick myths are not meant in the literal sense, but refer to Pagans; i.e., Saint Patrick drove the Pagans (specifically, the Celts) out of Ireland (although it could be said, and has been argued, that much has been done in Saint Patrick’s name, but that the man himself was relatively unimportant). So what is celebrated on Saint Patrick’s Day with drinking and much cavorting is, ironically, the spread of Christianity throughout Ireland and the subjugation and conversion of the Celts.

Roman-British Catholic Bishop and Missionary
Roman-British Catholic Bishop and Missionary

It wasn’t arbitrary that the day honoring Saint Patrick was placed on the 17th of March. The festival was designed to coincide, and, it was hoped, to replace the Pagan holiday known as Ostara; the second spring festival which occurs each year, which celebrates the rebirth of nature, the balance of the universe when the day and night are equal in length, and which takes place at the Spring Equinox (March 20th in 2015). In other words, Saint Patrick’s Day is yet another Christian replacement for a much older, ancient Pagan holiday; although generally speaking Ostara was most prominently replaced by the Christian celebration of Easter (the eggs and the bunny come from Ostara traditions, and the name “Easter” comes from the Pagan goddess Eostre).

What’s with the shamrock? Legend credits Saint Patrick with teaching the Irish about the concept of the Christian Trinity by showing people the shamrock, using it to highlight the Christian belief of “three divine persons in the one God”.

If celebrating on Saint Patrick’s Day; whether to celebrate your heritage, pretend to be Irish, or to just have an excuse to drink, it is fun to know some of the history and traditions behind the holiday!


Historical Cites and Quotes:

*Catholic Encyclopedia: “St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain. Calpurnius, his father, was a deacon, his grandfather Potitus a priest, from Banna Venta Berniae, a location otherwise unknown.”

*De Paor, pp. 141–143; Charles-Edwards, p. 182–183. Bede, writing a century later, refers to Palladius only: “An early document which is silent concerning Patrick is the letter of Columbanus to Pope Boniface IV of about 613. Columbanus writes that Ireland’s Christianity “was first handed to us by you, the successors of the holy apostles”, apparently referring to Palladius only, and ignoring Patrick.”

*Charles-Edwards, pp. 224–226: “The Patrick portrayed by Tírechán and Muirchu is a martial figure, who contests with druids, overthrows pagan idols, and curses kings and kingdoms. On occasion, their accounts contradict Patrick’s own writings: Tírechán states that Patrick accepted gifts from female converts although Patrick himself flatly denies this. However, the emphasis Tírechán and Muirchu placed on female converts, and in particular royal and noble women who became nuns, is thought to be a genuine insight into Patrick’s work of conversion. Patrick also worked with the unfree and the poor, encouraging them to vows of monastic chastity. Tírechán’s account suggests that many early Patrician churches were combined with nunneries founded by Patrick’s noble female converts.”

*Ó Cróinín, pp. 30–33. Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianizing the Roman Empire (Yale University Press, 1984) examines the better-recorded mechanics of conversion in the Empire, and forms the basis of Ó Cróinín’s conclusions: “The martial Patrick found in Tírechán and Muirchu, and in later accounts, echoes similar figures found during the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. It may be doubted whether such accounts are an accurate representation of Patrick’s time, although such violent events may well have occurred as Christians gained in strength and numbers.”

*Charles-Edwards, pp. 416–417 & 429–440: “Much of the detail supplied by Tírechán and Muirchu, in particular the churches established by Patrick, and the monasteries founded by his converts, may relate to the situation in the seventh century, when the churches which claimed ties to Patrick, and in particular Armagh, were expanding their influence throughout Ireland in competition with the church of Kildare. In the same period, Wilfred, Archbishop of York, claimed to speak, as metropolitan archbishop, “for all the northern part of Britain and of Ireland” at a council held in Rome in the time of Pope Agatho, thus claiming jurisdiction over the Irish church.”

* P. Sufenas Virius Lupus: “Unfortunately, this isn’t true, and the hagiographies of St. Patrick did not include this particular “miracle” until quite late, relatively speaking (his earliest hagiographies are from the 7th century, whereas this incident doesn’t turn up in any of them until the 11th century). St. Patrick’s reputation as the one who Christianized Ireland is seriously over-rated and overstated, as there were others that came before him (and after him), and the process seemed to be well on its way at least a century before the “traditional” date given as his arrival, 432 CE, because Irish colonists (yes, you read that right!) in southern Wales, Cornwall, and elsewhere in Roman and sub-Roman Britain had already come into contact with Christians and carried the religion back with them when visiting home.”

*Ronald Hutton Blood & Mistletoe: The History of The Druids in Britain: “[Saint Patrick’s] letters do, however, strongly suggest that the importance of Druids in countering his missionary work was inflated in later centuries under the influence of biblical parallels, and that Patrick’s visit to Tara was given a pivotal importance that it never possessed – if it ever occurred at all – to suit later political preoccupations. […] The only appearances of Druids in documents attributed to Patrick himself occur in some that are generally thought to have been composed after his death.”

*Galina Krasskova’s: “St. Patrick’s reputation as the one who Christianized Ireland is seriously over-rated and overstated, as there were others that came before him (and after him), and the process seemed to be well on its way at least a century before the “traditional” date given as his arrival, 432 CE. The simple fact is that paganism thrived in Ireland for generations after Patrick lived and died, and, as Lupus puts it, ” the ‘final’ Christianization of the culture didn’t take place until the fourteenth century CE.” There was no Irish pagan genocide, no proof of any great violent Druid purge in Ireland, it simply doesn’t exist outside hagiography. By the time hagiographers started speaking of snakes and Druids, Irish paganism was already a remnant, and Irish Christianity the dominant religious force on the island. They were more worried about establishing heroic Irish saints than eradicating traces of paganism.  Further, as Celtic Reconstructionist Morgan Daimler points out, it makes almost no sense within the context of Patrick’s tales to equate his snake-driving action as an anti-pagan allegory.”

* Bonwick, James. Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions. Published in 1894:

“A work published at St. Omer, in 1625, by John Heigham, has this story:

-but the glorious Saint, with the force of his fervent prayers, cast him downe unto the ground where dashing his head against a hard flint, he rêdred up his wicked soule as a pray to the infernnall Fiendes.

-Patrick blessed the ground, and it swallowed up the Druids.

-Nine magitians conspired the Saint’s death, and to have the more free accesse to him, they counterfeited thēselves to be monks putting on religious weeds; the Saint, by divine information, knew thē to be wolves wraped in sheeps cloathing; making, therefore, the signe of the crosse against the childrē of Satan, behould fire descended from Heaven and consumed them all nine. He is also reported to hay caused the death of 12,000 idolaters at Tara.”

*Celtic Callings: “Ostara Also known as Lady Day or Eostre, Ostara takes place on the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox and marks the fullness of the Earth and the triumph of the Sun over Winter. In the Celtic tradition, it signified the period when the Sun and the Earth mate to produce crops. It is thought that the Church’s feast of Easter, when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, is named after this feast. Prior to Easter, the Church prepares with the Lenten season, a time of meditation and sacrifice.”

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