Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic Activity: History of St. Patrick's Day



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Father Francis Weiser shares a short biography of St. Patrick and shares devotions and traditions from over the centuries.


Modern scholars place the birth of Saint Patrick in the year 385, and his death on March 17, 461. A Britannic Celt by race, and Roman citizen by nationality, he was captured by Gaels in a coastal raid and taken from his father s estate on the west coast of England to Ireland, where he served as a shepherd slave for six years. At the age of twenty-two he escaped on a boat which carried a cargo of Irish hounds to the Continent. Arriving in France, a vast desert instead of a peaceful, inhabited country was found. The Vandals and other Germanic tribes had crossed the Rhine on New Year''s night, 407, and made a wide path of utter destruction down through France; the population, terror-stricken, had fled into the Alpine sections. After crossing this "desert" Patrick separated from his pagan companions and returned to England, for a joyful reunion with his family.

His stay at home did not last very long. Impelled by the grace of God, he left again for the Continent, to devote his life to religious vocation and sacred ministry. From his own words we know that he traveled through Gaul (France), Italy, and some of the islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea. He finally decided to attach himself to the great bishop of Auxerre, Saint Germanus, under whose direction he studied the sacred doctrines of the faith and acquired an unusual familiarity with the Bible. He received minor orders and gradually rose to the diaconate. All that time he had in his heart the ardent wish to go back to Ireland and teach the gospel to the Gaels. His wish had been confirmed by dreams and other manifestations of God''s will.

Before he achieved this goal, a great trial cleansed and sanctified him still more. In 431, when the decision was made to send a bishop to Ireland, Saint Patrick was suggested but turned down by the authorities. He was also unjustly defamed by a man who had been his friend. The choice of the bishopric for Ireland fell on Palladius, Archdeacon of Pope Celestine. Palladius went to the Gaels; Patrick stayed behind at Auxerre, still a deacon, deeply humiliated by the defamation.

However, Palladius died the following year (432), and the choice then fell on Patrick. What he had so long desired and prayed for, he obtained suddenly and unexpectedly. Without delay he was consecrated bishop (after having been ordained a priest). Some time in the spring or summer of 432 he and his companions set foot on Irish soil. For almost thirty years Patrick labored unremittingly at the conversion of the island. He baptized many thousands with his own hands, organized the hierarchy and clergy, established churches and religious communities. Toward the end of his life he founded the see of Armagh, which he held as archbishop and primate of Ireland till his death.

Contrary to some popular legends, Patrick encountered much resistance, and many vicious attempts were made to stop his work. These attacks did not come from the people, but from the Druidic "priests," who actually were sorcerers, and from some of the local kings. In all these threats, dangers, calumnies, and hardships Patrick never flinched. Unerringly he went his way, fighting all obstacles with the powerful weapons of prayer, penance, heroic patience, and flaming zeal. When he died, the Church was firmly rooted in the Irish nation. In a short time his disciples completed what was left of the task of making all Ireland a flourishing province of Christianity.

Soon after his death, the inspiring figure of the great saint was embellished with fictional and legendary details. Many of them had a true and historical basis; others, especially miracles and unusual deeds, originated in the desire for overwhelming supernatural confirmation of the saint''s work. In this the ancient Gaelic writers were not really different from those of other nations, perhaps only more fertile and imaginative. It is a difficult and wearisome task for modern scholars to separate the historical facts from fictional and legendary details, and it will take many more years before Saint Patrick''s figure emerges with some degree of certitude as the "real Patrick," freed from later additions. However, much has been found already, and these historical details make the saint so wonderfully alive, so touchingly great, that not even the wildest legends could render him more attractive.

Saint Patrick was greatly venerated from the earliest times. Among the Irish people this veneration assumed a twofold special character. First, it is not only a direct and personal devotion, which they practice in their great manifestations of piety, but, what is more important and valuable, a sincere imitation of the saint. At the famous shrines of Lough Derg in Donegal and Croagh Patrick in Mayo he is not so much honored by "services" and mere prayers as by the hard and almost heroic penance the faithful perform in imitation of his own fasting, mortification, and prayers.

Second, in the course of centuries the veneration of Saint Patrick became identified with the patriotic and national ideals of the Irish people. Thus, March 17 is not only a religious holyday for them, but, at the same time, their greatest national holiday.

Actually, of course, the saint is venerated by other races and nations, too. In various parts of the European continent people invoke him as a local patron, hardly aware of the fact that he is the national saint of Ireland. In Styria, Austria, for instance, he is a favored patron of the farmers and their domestic animals.

The popular Saint Patrick's celebration on March 17 consists of traditional details which are faithfully kept in Ireland and have found their way to the New World as well: attendance at Mass in the morning, a solemn parade with subsequent meeting and speeches, festive meals in the home, and an evening of entertainment (dancing, concerts, plays). The custom of wearing green on Saint Patrick's Day did not start until over a thousand years after the saint's death. The charming practice of displaying the shamrock is based on a legend that the saint taught King Oengus at Cashel the doctrine of the Holy Trinity by using, as an illustration, a shamrock (trefoil) that he found growing there.

It was the custom in Ireland for men to wear the shamrock on their hat. Girls wore crosses made of ribbons. "A shamrock on every hat, low and tall, and a cross on every girl''s dress."13 The merry drink taken on this day was called "Saint Patrick's poteen."

The saint's day heralded the beginning of spring in Ireland. All livestock were driven out into the pastures to be kept in the open until the last day of October (Halloween). It still is regarded as the proper time in many sections of Ireland for the farmers to commence sowing and planting potatoes. "Saint Patrick turns the warm side of the stone uppermost" is an ancient saying. Another proverb claims that "from Saint Brigid's [February 2] to Saint Patrick's every alternate day is grand and fine; from then on, every day is fine."

So many and varied are the legends and legendary "facts" about Saint Patrick that it would take volumes to record them. The most famous ones are these: that he freed Ireland from all venomous snakes and reptiles; that he received a miraculous staff from Christ in a vision and henceforth carried it with him wherever he went; that he obtained from God the privilege of judging the Irish race at the end of time; that he lived a hundred and twenty years, like Moses; that he himself was of the Irish (Gaelic) race.

The most inspiring piece of Saint Patrick's lore is the beautiful prayer called "Breast Plate" (Lorica). It is a morning prayer in early Irish. The Book of Armagh (ninth century) ascribes its authorship to the saint. It might well be that Patrick actually composed this prayer. For many centuries now millions of faithful have used it with devotion.14

LITURGICAL PRAYER — O God, Thou didst send the Confessor and Bishop, Saint Patrick, to preach Thy glory to the gentiles, grant us through his merits and intercession to accomplish by Thy mercy what Thou commandest us to do.

Activity Source: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958