Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Apple #375: St. Patrick's Day

I just now remembered that I wanted to do a post about St. Patrick's Day. It's a bit late, so please excuse the brevity. Soul of wit and all that.

(Photo from You're History)

  • St. Patrick was born the son of wealthy British parents in 387 A.D.
  • Before he became St. Patrick, his given name was Maewyn Succat.
  • When he was sixteen, he was captured by several Irishmen who were raiding his parents' estate in England.
  • They brought him to Ireland and sold him to a chieftain who held him captive for six years.
  • He worked during his enslavement as a shepherd. He sought solace in Christianity and became a devout and prayerful shepherd.
  • Finally he was able to escape. He walked something like 200 miles to get to the coast and got on a ship, making his way back eventually to Britain.
  • Once there, he had a dream in which an angel told him to go back to Ireland -- the land where he was held prisoner -- and become a missionary. So that's what he did.
  • As soon as he arrived in Ireland, he went back to the chieftain who had enslaved him and paid the guy the price for his freedom.
  • Then he began traveling all across Ireland, speaking Gaelic and teaching everyone he met about Christianity in a way that fit in with customs they already observed.
  • St. Patrick's signature prayer is all about the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). He used the shamrock to represent the Trinity. The shamrock was also sacred to the Druids. Using a symbol that was powerful to them to describe Christianity was typical of his teaching methods.
  • So the shamrock remains a traditional symbol of St. Patrick's Day.

Stained glass window of St. Patrick, holding the things that are typically associated with him: his shepherd's crook, reminding us of his early days as a shepherd, and a shamrock which was his way of teaching about the Trinity.  Sometimes he's also drawn holding a snake, but here his third item is a book. This is somewhat ironic since he grew up with little education, but here the book symbolizes the writing and teaching he did in his later years.
(Photo from St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel in Park Slope)

  • St. Patrick did not drive any snakes out of Ireland. That story is a myth. It does serve a purpose, though, which is to suggest that he is responsible for making Ireland "safe," and thereby demonstrating how beloved and revered he became among the Irish.
  • March 17 marks the anniversary of his death. For many years, the British did not allow the Irish to do all sorts of things, including speak their own language or have their own celebrations. So they were not allowed to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
  • It wasn't until after millions of Irish had emigrated to the US that they were able to celebrate the day freely, and they did so with gusto. Even though this anniversary takes place in the middle of Lent when many Catholics abstain from meat, it became traditional to suspend all of that for one day and drink and dance and eat bacon and cabbage in celebration.

Traditional Irish breakfast.  Irish bacon is at about 1:00 on that plate.  It's made from brined pork shoulder and boiled slowly with salt, pepper, and spices.  It's thicker than the bacon we're used to and may be more like Canadian bacon.  Clockwise from the bacon are: fried egg, sauteed tomato, baked beans inn tomato sauce, Guinness brown bread with butter, and Irish sausage.
(Photo and bacon recipe from Emma Clare Eats)

More Irish bacon with a few sausages.
(Photo and bacon recipe from Emma Clare Eats)

History Channel, Who Was St. Patrick? and the History of the Holiday
Sean Markey, St. Patrick's Day Fast Facts: Beyond the Blarney, National Geographic News
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Patrick
Kiddyhouse, St. Patrick's Day Resources


  1. I stumbled across this bit and appreciate the nice quick understanding of St Patrick. It is nice to get a flavor of the truth from what has always been celebration with no real merrit. Thanks!

  2. "For many years, the British did not allow the Irish to do all sorts of things, including speak their own language or have celebrations. So they were not allowed to celebrate St. Patrick's Day." As someone who lives in Ireland, this statement is fiction. St. Patrick's Day has been a feast day and a holy day of obligation in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church in Ireland, since the 17th. Century. It was also whilst all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom that St. Patrick's Day first became a Public Holiday in 1903. Also and with regard to the Irish language, a greater proportion of the Irish populations were native speakers at the end of British rule in 1922, than today. Like most regional European languages, the decline of the Irish language is simply and sadly due to the indifference of the native population. It isn't something which can be blamed upon the Brits or indeed anyone else.


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