Lore, far more than written record, has created the Saint Patrick that hundreds of millions of people will celebrate today. The only two extended accounts of his life written during his own time come to us from Patrick himself. From there, intriguing myths about him arose over the centuries from historians and tradition.
Patrick tells us he was born into a respected Roman family in the colony of Britain during the late 300’s CE. His father and grandfather were members of the clergy in the Christian church as it existed at that time. Patrick was not a devout youth, however, until misfortune struck. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by pirates and brought to Ireland as a slave. Working as a shepherd in a pagan country, he found consolation and strength in his native Christianity. After about six years, a spiritual vision inspired him to escape his bonds. A three-day voyage by sea was the start of an arduous trek that ultimately landed him in France. There, he studied, cultivated his faith, and within ten years became a bishop.
On a mission from the Pope, Patrick returned to Ireland. Legends tell us that he expelled snakes from the country, and that his walking stick turned into a living tree. Perhaps more significant, however, and supported by historical record, he began to convert people to Christianity; established churches, dioceses, and monasteries; and began a process that would completely reorder Irish society within a couple of centuries.
Patrick’s historical narrative has more details than can be related here, but his story is that of an archetypal hero, whose internal transformation plays out in a physical journey, full of adversity and trials that he overcomes. Profound symbolism–working as a shepherd (analogous to Jesus), the conversion of his walking staff (tree of life), the elimination of snakes (paganism), and using a shamrock to illustrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity–marks much of his adventure. He is now one of three patron saints of Ireland.
All of this, of course, comes from a decidedly Christocentric orientation. Many of us have come to understand that the Druidism of ancient Ireland–and paganism in general–diminished throughout Europe as a result of Roman, and later ecclesiastical, imperialism. Patrick, however, represents a kind of synthesis that took place all across the Western world, as pagan symbols and rituals informed and enriched the Christian traditions that ultimately took over.
And today’s celebrations will have only a tenuous connection to Ireland and to religion. While roughly one-tenth of the U.S. population claims Irish ancestry–several times the current population of the Republic of Ireland–much of the other nine-tenths is along for the celebratory ride. In a largely secular but festive fashion, most Americans will cheer a vast and vague legacy associated with this man who lived sixteen centuries ago.
People will imbibe beverages that are dyed green. There will be singing of traditional Irish songs that most inhabitants in Ireland have never even heard. People of Irish descent–such as myself–will toast dead ancestors who left Ireland over a century ago and will wax nostalgic for the old country that nobody today has ever known. And while I will joyfully prepare corned beef and cabbage this evening, it is not an Irish dish. Many in Ireland today will instead enjoy boiled bacon and cabbage.
It is all a glorious, confused mass of variations on the legacy of a fifth-century bishop. And it is one of my favorite celebrations of the year.
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, “The Work of the Weavers”