Who Was Ireland’s St. Patrick?

Why Was His Irish Holiday Invented in America?

Photo of Kelly R. Smith   by Kelly R. Smith © 2022

St. Patrick's Day Parade goers in traditional regalia
St. Patrick’s Day Parade goers in traditional regalia
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This article was updated on 03/06/22.

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St. Patrick’s day is one of two “foreign” beer holidays (not counting New Year’s Eve) that were actually invented here in the United States, not imported. The other, of course, is Cinco de Mayo, which celebrates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. Other holidays, such as Christmas, originate elsewhere but we excel at making our own.

Why, other than the green beer, is St. Patrick’s Day so popular? The last Census showed that 34.1 million Americans have Irish ancestry. That’s seven times the population of Ireland. Chances are that you’ve got a wee bit o’ the Celt in you. The coronavirus is not going to stop you from celebrating or quoting witty Irish proverbs, right?

Who was the Real St. Patrick?

Patrick was born not in Ireland (Erin), but in Britain into a Romanized family. At 16 years of age, he was abducted by Irish raiders from his father’s villa. His abductor was Calpurnius who was a deacon and a minor local official. Patrick was carried off into slavery in Ireland. There he spent six bleak years there working as a herdsman, during which time he turned with fervor to his Christian faith. When he dreamt that the ship in which he was to escape was ready, he escaped from his master and found passage to England. There he approached starvation and endured another brief captivity before being reunited with his family. It is thought that after that he may have paid a short visit to the Continent.

The best-known passage in the Confessio speaks of a dream, following his return to England, in which one Victoricus offered him a letter titled “The Voice of the Irish.” As he read it, he heard a company of Irish folk asking him to walk once more among them. “Deeply moved,” he says, “I could read no more.” Nevertheless, because of the brevity of his education, he was reluctant for a long time to answer the call. Even on the eve of re-embarkation to Ireland, he was overwhelmed by doubts of his fitness for the task. Once there, however, his hesitations vanished. Completely confident in the Lord, he wandered far and wide, baptizing and confirming with true zeal. In diplomatic fashion, he brought gifts to a minor king here and a lawgiver there but accepted none from any.

Legends of St. Patrick

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