Patrick's Day, now celebrated in Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United
States, Australia, and New Zealand, is an unusual blend of Christian and pagan
customs, and a celebration of the venerated Catholic saint and missionary,
was born in Wales in 385. When he was sixteen, he was taken from his home and
sold into servitude in Ireland, where he spent six years working as a shepherd.
During this time, he became a devout Christian. Upon escaping from slavery, he
went to Gaul, where he studied Christian doctrine for fifteen years and was
eventually ordained to the Catholic priesthood. He subsequently returned to
Ireland as a missionary.
to popular belief, Patrick did not introduce Christianity to Ireland. There
were already Christians living in Ireland, but they were a very small minority,
with most of the indigenous Irish population following Celtic-pagan beliefs.
Having already lived among the common Irish people for six years, Patrick was
ideally suited to bring Christianity to Ireland on a large scale.
his missionary efforts, Patrick used his knowledge of Irish culture and pagan
belief to explain Christianity in terms that the people would understand. The
shamrock, for instance, was already an important symbol to the people,
signifying spring and rebirth. Patrick employed the shamrock to represent the
Trinity: three separate pieces all part of a whole. Patrick's newly-won
converts adopted the shamrock as the symbol of their Christianity and wore it
on their clothes; later this transformed into the custom of wearing green to
celebrate Saint Patrick's Day.
prevalent Celtic symbol was fire. The Celts used bonfires to honor their gods,
so Patrick adopted this custom into the Catholic celebration of Easter, and
early Irish Christians celebrated the holy day with fires and revelry. Because
the Irish pagans also worshiped the sun, he superimposed an orb over the cross
to create a new icon of the Irish Catholic faith. This emblem is now recognized
as the Celtic cross.
common myth about Patrick is that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland.
Actually, there were never very many snakes in Ireland to begin with. This
legend comes from an incident that is purely symbolic: Patrick stood on a
hilltop (which now bears his name), held up his wooden staff, and "banished the
snakes" from Ireland. The "banishing of the snakes" represented the eradication
of pagan doctrines from Ireland. Within two centuries, Patrick's vision had
been realized, and Christianity had triumphed. Patrick died near present-day Dublin on 17 March 461. He was canonized
by the Church, and the day commemorating his death is now a holy day of
religious observation for Catholics in Ireland. Today Saint Patrick's day has
become a secular holiday as well, and a celebration of all things Irish.
Superstitions of leprechauns stem from Celtic beliefs in fairies, small magical
people given over to mischief and trickery. Another Irish idiosyncrasy that has
become well-known is that of the Blarney Stone. The ritual of kissing the stone,
hoping to tap into its magical qualities and receive the gift of eloquent
speech, has been performed by millions of people. This kind of pagan practice
is hardly new; special stones and landmarks existed all over the ancient world,
everywhere from the fertility rock at Giza to the oracle at Delphi to the
spring of youth and vitality in Tuscany. It was through this kind of hybridism
that Christian missionary efforts among the Celtic people were so successful,
and through the Christianization of Ireland that Saint Patrick's legacy lives