Updated: May 17
Yes, you read that correctly. Pirates kidnapped St. Patrick.
Captured at a young age he came to Ireland aboard a slave ship. In fact, the Saint that has become famous for shamrocks, green, and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, wasn’t even Irish! His name was Succat and he was originally from Britain, he wouldn’t become the St. Patrick we all know today until much later.
There isn’t much known about Succat’s youth. He wrote a short autobiography titled the Confessio. However, much of what we know is just speculation. While enslaved Succat, only 16 years old, worked as a shepherd for six years when suddenly, according to his own writing, he heard the voice of God in a dream telling him it was time to leave Ireland. So, Succat worked up his courage and escaped! Fleeing 200 miles to the Irish coast and sailing back to Britain. Only to return to Ireland later in life as a Christian missionary. So what inspired him to come back to the land that held him captive for so long?
Another dream! Succat believed he once again heard the voice of God, this time telling him to go back. This began Succat’s religious training that would last for about 15 years cumulating in Succat becoming the priest known as St. Patrick. (However, it‘s speculated he was never canonized by the Catholic Church and simply became a “priest” to the people because they liked him so much!)
With his new title (recognized by the church or not) St. Patrick traveled back to Ireland to begin trying to convert the Irish.
This where history and myth begin to mix. A culture as rich in folk lore as the Irish, it’s easy to see how much of St. Patrick’s life became more legend than fact. For example, Patrick never banished snakes from Ireland. In fact, evidence (or lack thereof, i.e. no fossil records) suggests that snakes never even occupied the Emerald Isle at all! This myth wove it’s way into the legend likely because it was a metaphor for the eradication of pagan ideology and the rise of Christianity. You see, within 200 years of Patrick’s arrival, Ireland was completely Christianized. However, St. Patrick wasn’t the first to bring Christianity to Ireland. Another myth! Reportedly, a bishop known as Palladius, sent by Pope Celestine, had already been to Ireland. This could suggest that some Irish had already converted by the time Patrick arrived. Even more interesting; One theory holds that the St. Patrick of lore is actually an amalgam of the two men: Palladius and the deacon’s son (possibly Patrick) who first visited Ireland as an enslaved man.
So how do we get all these mix ups? Well, St. Patrick attempted to incorporate Irish Culture into Christian faith not completely remove it. He did so by combining symbols and powerful iconography; he superimposed a sun, a powerful symbol to the Irish, onto the Christian cross, creating what we know today as the Celtic cross. Similarly, the Shamrock, originally called “seamroy” by the Celts, is another important aspect of Irish culture. The shamrock was a sacred plant that symbolized the arrival of spring. According to legend, St. Patrick used the plant as a way to describe the Holy Trinity. His goal was to make the symbols seem more natural to the Irish. It’s why there’s so much crossover with how we celebrate today, with bonfires, leprechauns (cranky creatures said to fix the broken shoes of fairies), special food, and alcohol.
Fun Fact: By the seventeenth century, the shamrock had become a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism. As the English began to seize Irish land and make laws against the use of the Irish language and the practice of Catholicism, many Irish began to wear the shamrock as a symbol of their pride in their heritage and their displeasure with English rule.
After 40 years of living in Ireland, teaching and working continuously towards his beliefs, St. Patrick died on March 17th 461. Since his death countless stories have been told about the man once known as Succat. From baptizing hundreds in only a day, to chasing out those pesky snakes. Each year on the day of his death, the Irish have celebrated the day as a religious holiday, participating in church in the morning and special food and drink in the afternoon.
In America we celebrate much the same. The first record of St. Patrick’s Day in America was held on March 17th, 1601 in a Spanish colony under the orders of the colony's Irish vicar, Ricardo Artur. As the years went on St. Patricks became a day to celebrate unity and strength for persecuted Irish-American immigrants. In 1955 the Irish government began marketing the holiday with a large-scale campaign to boot tourism and today, St. Patrick’s is celebrated internationally as a party holiday with good music, good food, good beer, and lots of green.
Which ironically is another falsehood, the earliest depictions of St. Patrick show him dressed in blue, not green! Why did it change? King George III created a new order of chivalry for the Kingdom of Ireland, the Order of St. Patrick, its official color was a sky blue, known as St. Patrick's Blue. So maybe this year put on Sky Blue instead of Green!
Happy St. Patrick's Day!