St Patrick’s Day: A Brief History

Saint Patrick’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Patrick, is annually held on the 17th of March and is a religious and cultural celebration. It is celebrated primarily by Christians, and also celebrates the heritage and culture of the people of Ireland. The day is a public holiday in Ireland and has been since 1903. Saint Patrick’s Day is also celebrated globally. Irish emigrants transformed the festival into a secular one in the United States, which celebrates all things Irish. Since 1962, Chicago has coloured its river green to mark the day. The festival is also a public holiday on the island of Montserrat, as it was founded by Irish refugees. Due to the day’s association with Ireland, celebrations there greatly influence celebrations across the rest of the world.

As you may have guessed, the day itself celebrates Saint Patrick, a Christian missionary who lived in the 5th century. Most information about him comes from ‘Declaration,’ which was allegedly written by Patrick himself. The text details a story in which Patrick, at the age of sixteen, was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken from his home, Roman Britain, as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. After working for six years as a shepherd there, he found faith. Toward the end of this six-year period, he began to hear a voice telling him that he would soon go home, and later that his ship was ready. He escaped, and travelled to a port, 200 miles away. There he found a ship and sailed back to Britain. By the time he returned to his family he was in his early twenties. There, he continued to study Christianity.

Patrick later had a vision, and in it, claimed he was visited by a man named Victoricus, who was from Ireland. The vision told hm that he must return to Ireland and lead them. Acting upon this, Patrick returned to Ireland to introduce his new Christian faith to the Irish people. The 17th of March is traditionally believed to be the day that he died. Although he has never been officially canonised, he is recognised as the primary patron saint of Ireland and is sometimes called ‘Apostle of Ireland.’ He is also regarded as ‘equal-to-the-apostles,’ meaning that his service to Christianity is considered to be on par with Jesus’ original 12 apostles.

The shamrock is a common symbol of Ireland, and legend has it that Saint Patrick used it to aid his teaching. According to the story, which first appeared in writing in 1726, he used it to illustrate the idea of the Holy Trinity. The three leafed sprig was representative of the father, the son and the holy spirit. It is now heavily associated with Saint Patrick’s Day. Allegedly, St Patrick also banished snakes from Ireland, chasing them all into the sea when they attacked him during his 40 day fast on top of a hill.

Green is associated with Ireland primarily because of the image of the shamrock. Other reasons have also been outlined. The story of Goídel Glas was described in the 11th century book ‘Lebor Gabála Éren.’ Glas was bitten by a snake, which was healed by Moses through the use of his staff. As a reminder, Glas retained a green mark that would also lead his people to a land that would be free of snakes. In the 1640s, the green harp flag was used by the Irish Catholic Confederation, further strengthening the link between the colour and the country. The wearing of the ‘Saint Patrick’s Day Cross’ was also a popular custom until the early 20th century. They were Celtic Christian crosses made of paper, covered with different coloured silks, commonly with a rosette of green silk in the centre. The festival is actually celebrated in more countries than any other national festival.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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