ST. PATRICK’S DAY
Although much of the life of the patron saint of Ireland is shrouded in legend, he was probably born around the year 389. What we do know about him comes from his book, “The Confession”, which he wrote near the end of his life. It begins,
“I am Patrick, a sinner, most uncultivated and least of all the faithful…My father was Calpornius, a deacon, a son of Potitus, a presbyter, who was at the village of Bannavem Taberniea.”
He was born it seems in the Severn Valley in England. He was British, not Irish. He was doubtless educated in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain under a Christian influence with a reverence for the Roman Empire, of which he was a citizen. His father was a landowner and together with his family he lived on their estate. At the age of sixteen, when he claimed he “did not then know the true God,” he was carried off by a band of Irish marauders. Irish tradition says he tended the herds of a chieftain in the county Antrim. His bondage lasted for six years during which time, as he wrote, “turned with all my heart to the Lord my God.”
He fled 200 miles to the coast of Wicklow, and encountered a ship engaged in the export of Irish wolf-dogs. After three days at sea the traders landed, probably on the west coast of Gaul, and journeyed twenty-eight days through the desert. At the end of two months Patrick parted company with his companions and spent a few years in the monastery of Lerins. After returning home from the Mediterranean the idea of missionary enterprise in Ireland came to him. He seems to have proceeded to Auxerre where he was ordained by Bishop Amator and spent at least fourteen years there.
While in Ireland Patrick was both an evangelist of the gospel of Jesus and an organizer of the faithful. He battled heresy as well as engaged in trials of skill against Druids. There is some evidence that he traveled to Rome around 441-443 and brought back with him some valuable relics. On his return he founded the church and monastery of Armagh. Some years later he retired, probably to Saul in Dalaradia.
As one travels through Ireland, there are many stories and legends about Patrick. One in Dublin has it that the St. Patrick Cathedral (pictured at the top) is situated at the site of an old well where Patrick would baptize converts into the faith. There is a stone tablet in front of the church commemorating the location (pictured at right).
Other legends report him ridding Ireland of snakes, though it is unlikely that post-ice age Ireland had snakes. For another view on this, see my three articles on the history of St. Patrick at this link.
In modern times the feast associated with his death on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, has become primarily an ethnic holiday celebrating Irish heritage in much the same way as Columbus Day is a celebration of Italian ethnicity in the United States. Indeed, major Irish celebrations of the day in the United States predated large public celebrations in Ireland itself! In Chicago, there are two St. Patrick’s Day Parades. However, you can’t close down the schools on St. Patrick’s Day without showing ethnic bias. So Massachusetts’s Suffolk County, among other counties, closes the schools to commemorate March 17, 1776, the day the British troops cleared out of Boston in the American Revolutionary War. For the record, they call it Evacuation Day.
Update: Due to Holy Week occurring this year unusually early in the calendar, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in some cities has been moved to March 14 or 15. Especially in cities where traditional parades take place the Sunday before March 17, which this year coincides with Palm Sunday. This calender conundrum will not occur again until 2160.
Bill MacPetro, your friendly neighborhood historian