Everyone has heard of St. Patrick. The patron saint of Ireland who drove the snakes from the island. However, the famous Irish saint was not even Irish by birth. It is thought that he was born in Scotland, England, Wales or even on the coast of France around 385 CE. He wasn’t named Patrick either. It is thought his original name was Maewyn or Succat. When he was sixteen, a group of Irish pirates sacked his village and took him for a slave. As a slave shepherd in Ireland, he turned to the religion of his youth- Roman Catholicism. He eventually escaped and studied in a monastery in France under St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre, and took the name Patrick as his Christian name. He journeyed back to Ireland as a priest under St. Palladius, and when Palladius went on to Scotland became Ireland’s second bishop. The Celtic Church flourished. (For more on this, please read this post: http://www.historynaked.com/celtic-christianity/ )
Many miracles and events were attributed to Patrick, and his life is shrouded in myth and legend. He is said to have kindled fire from snow, raised the dead and preached a sermon that drove all the snakes from Ireland. However, it is thought this reference to snakes is metaphorical. “Snakes” in this case were the Druids and pagans. “Driving them away” is thought to have merely driven them underground or out of Ireland to murdering them. The most famous legend about St. Patrick links him to the shamrock. A shamrock is small green plant with three leaves on one stem. Legend has it that Patrick was explaining the trinity to a group of converts and they were struggling to understand. Looking for a teaching tool, Patrick picked up the small plant and said for them to think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the three leaves on the plant. They were separate, but together on one stem, which represented the single Godhead. March 17 is his death day, and eventually became his feast day, which is what is celebrated.
How did the feast day of an Irish saint become such a celebrated holiday? People in Ireland began celebrating St. Patrick’s feast day as early as the 9th and 10th century CE. However, it was nothing more than another Church holiday. St. Patrick’s Day did not even get a parade until the late 18th century, and the first one was in the United States not in Ireland. In 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on St. Patrick’s Day. They played Irish music and sang Irish songs. Over the next 35 years, the parade continued. There are records of George Washington giving his Irish soldiers a day off to participate. As time went on, the parades were sponsored by Irish Aid societies such as the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society even though there was plenty of prejudice against the Irish immigrants who participated. In 1848 at the height of Irish immigration to the United States, several Irish Aid societies combined their parades into one large one to form the official New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This was conceived as an act of rebellion against “nutty people who didn’t like the Irish very much”. Catholics and Protestants marched together to “show how many there were of them”. This parade grew into the largest worldwide St. Patrick’s Day parade.
The color green was not originally the color used for the holiday. The original color was a light blue, and can be seen on ancient Irish flags and on flags and armbands used by the Irish Citizen Army. This group tried to end British rule in 1916 with the Easter Rising. However, as early as 1798 green was being associated with Irish nationalism to differentiate Ireland from the blues and red used by England, Wales and Scotland. It also represented the lush green fields of Ireland. Green became so popular that it eventually eclipsed the original blue badges altogether.
Green food may be considered something fun in the US for St. Patrick’s Day parties, but it really harkens back to an extremely dark time in Irish history. During the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, starvation was not out of the common way. Millions of Irish fled their homeland to the United States and elsewhere to find a better life. Those that stayed tried to survive and resorted to desperate measures. Christine Kinealy is the founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. She said, “People were so deprived of food that they resorted to eating grass. In Irish folk memory, they talk about people’s mouths being green as they died.” Corned beef wasn’t an Irish dish either. Cows were considered a symbol of wealth in Gaelic Ireland, and kept mainly for milk. Meat was generally pork and not beef. However, when the English invaded they brought their love of beef to the island, and corned beef was born.
So something to think about as you eat your corned beef and cabbage and drink your green beer.