St Patrick’s Day is this weekend! Here is something about St Paddy (NOT St Patty!) This article appeared in this month’s North Clare Local…
The green decorations are creeping into the shops already. It’ll soon be time to pin a sprig of shamrock to your coat to celebrate St Patrick.
Thanks to the Irish tradition of emigration, celebration of the saint’s day will take place in almost every corner of the world. It is especially popular in North America, where large parades take place annually in New York and other cities. A recent phenomenon is the ‘greening’ of famous sites. In 2013, the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, the pyramids of Giza and other attractions will be bathed in green light.
But why green? The colour has become synonymous with Ireland, from ‘Forty Shades of Green’ to our sporting colours. St Patrick’s original colour was blue, but over the years, it became green. There are several factors behind this. The green shamrock is associated with the saint, from the legend that he used the three-leafed plant to explain the holy trinity to the pagan Irish. From the 17th century on, people began to wear shamrock on St Patrick’s Day. During the 1798 rebellion, rebels and supporters were encouraged to wear green. And of course, we only need to look out at our rain-enriched landscape to understand why green is our national colour.
Apart from Ireland, St Patrick’s Day is a public holiday in the Canadian province of Labrador and Newfoundland, as well as the Caribbean island of Montserrat. The Irish, fleeing from Cromwellian slavery in St Kitts and Nevis, were instrumental in the settling of the island. March 17 is also the date of a failed slave uprising in the area.
St Patrick’s own life story has been recorded many times, not least by the man himself, who wrote his autobiography, Confessions. He was born in Britain (though some say France) and was snatched by Niall of the Nine Hostages as a boy. Niall is reputedly the ancestor of over 8% of Irish men, the majority of whom are concentrated in the north-west of the country. As befitting the Irish version of Genghis Khan, life with Niall was no picnic and poor Patrick soon found himself sold into slavery. He spent six miserable years minding sheep on a mountaintop, before running away and sailing back to his family.
After an experience like that, no-one could blame Patrick for never wanting to see Ireland again. After his return to Britain, he found himself dreaming of the land he had left. A devout Christian, he wished to spread the word of God among the pagan populace. And so he returned and won the hearts of the Irish.
St Patrick is the subject of many myths and legends. One of the most famous concerns his banishment of snakes from Ireland after they attacked him while he prayed. Unfortunately for any romantics, it’s been conclusively proven that Ireland has never been home to the slippery creatures, and indeed, some believe that the ‘snakes’ were a symbolic representation of the pagan druids. Still, as a lifelong ophidiophobe (a sufferer of a fear of serpents), I’ll always have a special fondness for St Patrick.
Another St Patrick’s legend concerns the son of a chieftain who wished to convert to Christianity. On baptising Aengus, St Patrick’s crozier accidentally pierced the man’s foot. Poor Aengus, thinking that this was a part of the ceremony, kept silent about his pain. Patrick apologised and because he admired Aengus’ stoicism, carved a cross in the latter’s shield to protect him for life. Given that the Celts went in for human sacrifice, we can hardly blame Aengus for assuming the worst.
St Patrick is associated with dozens of places in Ireland, big and small. A few examples include; Patrickswell and Ardpatrick in Co Limerick, St Patrick’s Island in Dublin and even Kilpatrick in Scotland. The saint is believed to have retired to Saul in Co Down and he is buried in nearby Downpatrick. During his life he climbed the Reek, or Croagh Patrick, in Co Mayo, an act of pilgrimage undertaken by many every July. Paganism mixes with Christianity in the tale of Patrick’s connection with the Hill of Slane in Co Meath. It is said that he lit an Easter bonfire in defiance of High King Laoire. The bonfire is very much a Celtic pagan symbol, so one of our first Christian saints lighting one on Meath’s ancient hills is quite interesting. Only Patrick could douse the fire, and it is apparently here that he first used the shamrock.
St Patrick’s legacy lives on. For centuries, his name was one of the most popular for Irish men and stories of his life and deeds are still taught to children all over Ireland. Parades take place globally, including in almost every village and town in Ireland. Lá feile Phadráig shona dióbh go léir!