This Friday is St. Patrick’s Day. While we know to wear green and can expect the day to be full of four leaf clover decorations and tacky Irish themed t-shirts, you may wonder what the holiday actually celebrates.
The holiday began in 5th century Druid Ireland as a feast celebrating Saint Patrick, a patron saint of Ireland. The day began as a religious holiday in the country, celebrating Saint Patrick’s missionary work. Today, it is an international and far more secular day celebrating Irish culture. Countries with large Irish populations celebrate the holiday such as Canada, the United States, Australia, European countries, and of course, Ireland.
Saint Patrick was born around 387 A.D. in Roman Britain, known then as Patricius. Historians believe he was born in Brittany, Scotland, or Wales to an aristocratic Christian family. Though brought up in the church, Patrick didn’t share his family’s beliefs leading historians to call him a modern day atheist.
In his teen years, around the age of 16, Patrick’s life and beliefs were altered in a kidnapping by Irish raiders that dragged him to Ireland. There the raiders sold him to a chieftain and Patrick was enslaved for six years as a shepherd. He was given little to prepare him for Ireland’s cold weather and endured the island’s rains without sufficient shelter while tending the sheep. It was while enduring these harsh conditions that Patrick reconnected with his family’s religion, putting his trust in God.
After six years of captivity, Patrick was told in a dream that he would soon be returning home and his “ship was ready.” Eagerly Patrick set off, traveling 200 miles to reach the coast. There he convinced sailors headed to Britain to give him passage on their ship.
Patrick kept his faith upon returning home and moved to Auxerre, France to begin studying at a local monastery before joining the clergy. During this time, Patrick heard another message in a dream, this time urging him to return to Ireland. Though he didn’t heed the message as swiftly as the last, he kept it in mind and, after being ordained a bishop, he returned to Ireland with the consecration of Pope St. Celestine I.
He arrived back to the island in 432 A.D. He returned to find the people of Ireland suffering hard times enmeshed in tribalism, division, and violence. Their hardships made it more difficult for Patrick to share his message with them and he was met with distaste.
Though terrible, Patrick’s time in slavery on the island gave him a needed understanding of Irish culture and religious beliefs. Though other missionaries had managed to begin small Christian communities in the area, the message wasn’t growing quickly. Patrick’s knowledge of Ireland’s pagan rituals allowed him to explain Christianity in a way the Irish better understood and, despite their original hostility, Patrick began to gain credibility and integrate back into Irish society.
Patrick incorporated Ireland’s pagan rituals into Christian beliefs, making the faith more familiar to the Irish and his message began to have an impact. The now prominent Celtic cross was created for this purpose by Patrick, combining an Irish sun-worshipping ideology with the Christian cross. Patrick worked with existing missionaries to grow the small Christian communities in the region with his teachings. As Christianity spread, so did churches and schools, improving literacy and providing educational resources to the Irish.
Patrick served the country for almost thirty years before dying in 461 A.D. He planted over 300 churches, promoted literacy and education, and was the catalyst that transformed Ireland into a Christian state. St. Patrick was never canonized by the Catholic Church, but Ireland’s yearly celebration of his accomplishments has immortalized his name around the world.