Did you know that St. Patrick was not Irish, and his real name wasn’t Patrick?
St. Patrick’s Day was recently celebrated across the globe. But did you know that St. Patrick was not Irish, and his original name wasn’t even Patrick? As many of you know, St. Patrick’s Day is very special in our family sincere my daughter was born on that day. It is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival. It is a day that honors St. Patrick, who is known as the patron saint of Ireland and is celebrated on March 17, the anniversary of his death. He is credited for bringing Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century when it was primarily a pagan country with many gods. He is viewed as the protector and guide of the Irish people.
St. Patrick was born in Britain, which was controlled by and part of the Roman Empire at that time. His birth name was Maewyn Succatt, but he later changed it to Patricius (“father figure” in Latin), or Patrick, when he became a priest. I suppose Maewyn just didn’t have the same ring. At the age of 16 Irish pirates overtook his village and carried him away to Ireland as a slave. The 6 years he spent in slavery drove him closer to his faith (as hardships can certainly do). He eventually escaped on a boat back to Britain and was reunited with his family. But after several years he had a dream that “Ireland was calling him back…that they needed him”. So, he set off on a mission to Ireland where he lived in constant danger of martyrdom among the pagans. He won their love and respect by adhering to the response Jesus gave to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew when asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus summarized all the commandments with these two statements: “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Keep in mind, it is difficult to do the second command well without keeping the first in your heart.
But exactly what does “love your neighbor as yourself mean?” Most would say it means to treat others the way you want to be treated. Yet, I have found that some people don’t really care all that much about the way you treat them. They are going to do what they’re going to do whether you treat them well or not. It seems that a better measure of that command can be found in Philippians 2:3-4. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility, consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” St. Patrick did just that. He treated everyone with great respect, giving gifts but taking none. He was humble and gentle with all the people of Ireland, trying to understand their beliefs, while gently planting the seeds of Christianity. He practiced love and forgiveness as well as hard work. And the people responded by the masses, coming to be baptized by St. Patrick. The revival that took place in Ireland was unsurpassed.
Many miracles were attributed to St. Patrick, including raising 33 people from the dead, and thus he became a legendary figure. Although he was already called “St. Patrick” as early as the 7th century, it wasn’t until the 1900’s that he was officially canonized as a saint by the Church. His teachings were legendary, cleverly using the native shamrock, a 3-leaf clover on one stalk, to illustrate and explain the Trinity. In fact, the shamrock became a symbol of national pride, and men proudly wore them in their lapels. He founded numerous schools, churches, monasteries, and nunneries throughout Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Day in most countries is a far cry from how it began. It originated in Ireland as a holy day, a religious and cultural holiday. In fact, until 1961 there were laws in Ireland that prevented pubs from opening on that day. (You wouldn’t have wanted to go to Ireland to celebrate the day as Americans do!) Those laws were repealed to accommodate tourists as air travel became more popular. But the Irish have always “partied” on that day. It’s just that they go to church first on the morning of March 17. Keep in mind that date falls during the Christian season of Lent, but the Irish ingeniously used it as a day to break lent (for the sake of honoring their patron saint). They ate meat, drank mead and celebrated with friends for that one day. But that meat wasn’t corned beef as you might assume! Even today, as in all the years before, people in Ireland celebrate by eating Irish pork bacon, potatoes, and vegetables, all covered with a white sauce. If you’ve never had Irish pork bacon, it is to die for! It’s more like ham than bacon. Corned beef was adopted by Irish immigrants who came to the United States after the “Great Potato Famine” of 1845. It is rumored that they first came upon it by eating at cheap Jewish delis. The tradition of St. Patrick’s Day parades became popular in the United States, but still to this day, not so much in Ireland.
Leprechauns, snakes, and green are often associated with St. Patrick’s Day in most nations. Although Celtic pagans believed in fairies that would protect them from evil spirits, the leprechaun became popular when it was first featured in a Disney movie in 1959. You may often see pictures of St. Patrick with snakes. There is a folk lore about how St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. But in reality, snakes have never existed in Ireland. It is too cold for them. There has never been a record of a snake fossil found in Ireland. Snakes were, however, associated with the Celtic pagan deities. And St. Patrick is thought to have driven paganism out of Ireland!
The color green is definitely associated with Ireland. But it has not always been so. Have you ever wondered why Notre Dame athletic teams often wear blue? Blue was the original color associated with Ireland. The old flags reflect that color. In the 1500’s, King Henry VIII of England (the one that killed all his wives) declared himself King of Ireland. His flag was also blue, and it was flown in every town of Ireland. During the Great Irish rebellion, when the Irish fought against the British for their independence, the Irish army adopted a green flag. Green became a symbol of national pride that we associate with Ireland today.
The next time you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, you will be well-informed. You can pick a clover, explain the trinity, and break Lent with the best of them. But I hope we will all remember the spirit of St. Patrick throughout the year. With a focus on God, we can better love others as we love ourselves…with respect, humility, forgiveness, generosity, and grace we can accomplish amazing changes in our world!
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