The Ladies' Tea Guild

Monday, March 14, 2011

The history of St. Patrick's Day celebrations.

Cross, Rock of Cashel, Ireland.
St. Patrick's Day is one of the most widely-celebrated holidays in the United States.  Many traditions are gleefully kept every year on March 17th, and people often think that the activities and symbols now associated with the day have been part of St. Patrick’s Day from its beginning as a holiday.  However, with a little research, the history of St. Patrick’s Day begins to come to light, and it reveals that many of the things we associate with the day are neither particularly Irish, nor particularly old! 

The historical St. Patrick lived during Roman Celtic times in Britain, around the 5th century A.D.  According to the two authentic writings he left behind, Patrick was born in Roman Britain to a Romanized Celtic man and woman, and his father was a minor Roman government official.  When Patrick was about 16 years old, a raiding party from Celtic Ireland invaded his local area, kidnapped him, and brought him to Ireland, where he was sold to an Irish chieftain who was also a high-rankng Druid. 

He served his owner as a shepherd, and was mistreated along with the other slaves, for 6 years, all the while secretly keeping to his Christian faith through constant prayer.  His experience of slavery and persecution, as well as his intimate knowledge of the pagan Celtic religion and Irish language as a result of his time in Ireland, formed the foundation of his desire to rectify the situation as a missionary.  He was able to escape from his master in the middle of the night as a result of a series of dreams that directed him to a waiting ship 200 miles from his master’s estate, and a ship’s captain that miraculously let him on board even though he had no money to pay his way. 

On his return to Britain, Patrick entered the Church in preparation for his missionary work, and was educated and befriended by many prominent contemporary citizens and churchmen, both in England and in French Gaul, and he even met the Pope in Rome.  Along with several other priests, Patrick was commissioned by the Pope to be a missionary to Ireland, and a bishop for the Irish Christians who were already living there.  On his return to Ireland, Patrick and his companions experienced considerable hostility from the Druids and other political-religious leaders; his former master committed suicide rather than meet Patrick face to face, even though he brought money with him to pay the slave-price to the man and officially buy his own freedom. 

Many legends are attributed to him as he struggled to enter the country and make peaceful contact with the Irish leadership, including miracles that occurred to protect him and his companions from attack, as well as to illustrate his religious message.  Slowly he gained permission from the authorities to preach Christianity and establish churches and schools in Ireland.  He devoted himself to the Irish Christians and to preaching in Ireland, and was eventually accepted by the Irish people as one of their own.  His death on March 17 was remembered as a religious holiday by the Irish as early as the 9th century, who by this time considered him the patron saint of Ireland, before it was made an official feast day of the Catholic Church in the 1660s.  Only then did St. Patrick’s Day celebrations begin to assume the form that they hold today, and are enjoyed by Irish Protestants as well as Catholics. The official color associated with the day was originally blue, instead of green, because early representations of St. Patrick showed him wearing blue robes.  The year-round green landscape of Ireland itself, as well as the native Irish shamrock, which St. Patrick is said to have used to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, gradually influenced the association of the color green with St. Patrick’s Day.

Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.
Works Consulted:
“Letter to Coroticus” by St. Patrick
“History of St. Patrick’s Day is Long and Colorful” by Robert McNamara
“St. Patrick’s Day” Wikipedia article
“A Traditional Saint Patrick's Day: How the Irish Remembered and Celebrated Saint Patrick in the Old Days” by Bernd Biege
“History of the shamrock, leprechaun and the Blarney Stone”
“History of Ireland”

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)