Pam North Peak to Peak
March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, soon will be here, and many of us will take part in festivities that mark the occasion. The parades, parties, speeches, dinners, dances and pub gatherings are all part of it, traditions proud and rowdy that shout out IRISH! The beginning of it all was far more religious and austere, however; it was the death of St. Patrick.
The person who was to become Ireland’s patron saint was born to wealthy parents in Britain in the latter half of the 4th century AD. His given name is believed to be Maewyn Succat; his first name was Romanized to Patricius, and he would later come to be known as St. Patrick. Patrick considered himself pagan until the age of sixteen, when a group of Irish raiders attacked his parents’ estate, taking him prisoner and transporting him to Ireland, where he spent six years in captivity. He worked as a shepherd, outdoors and away from people, and his introspection during his isolation and loneliness led to became devoutly Christian. Escaping from slavery after six years, he walked nearly 200 miles from County Mayo, where it is believed he was held, to the Irish coast, then traveled on to Britain. He engaged in religious training for more than fifteen years, and he assumed the Christian name of Patrick.
After his ordination Patrick was sent, as the second bishop to Ireland, to minister to Christians already living in Ireland and to convert the Irish. Although he was not known to be a great scholar, his talent lay in converting the Gaelic Irish, then pagans, to Christianity, and he also made important converts among royal families. Familiar with Irish language and nature-based culture, Patrick wisely chose to incorporate traditional ritual into his lessons of Christianity, rather than trying to eradicate native Irish beliefs. He superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross (creating what is now called a Celtic cross) so that veneration of the symbol would seem more natural to the Irish. He used bonfires to celebrate Easter, as the Irish had long honored their gods with fire. His influence was so great that it was inevitable that much Irish folklore has sprung up around him, most of it without any real substantiation. There is some belief that he raised people from the dead, and that he gave a hilltop sermon during which he drove all the snakes from Ireland. Since no snakes were ever native to Ireland, this latter story is perhaps a metaphor for his conversion of pagans. The three-leafed shamrock, now traditional as a symbol of Ireland, supposedly was used by St. Patrick in his teachings to illustrate the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost existing as three separate elements of the same entity.
His success at his work made him an enemy of the Celtic Druids, and Patrick was arrested several times, but always managed to escape. His travels throughout Ireland fostered the growth of monasticism. He established dioceses, schools and churches; he developed a native clergy and held church councils. His mission in Ireland lasted thirty years, until he retired to County Devon, where he died on March 17, in 461 AD.
The date of St. Patrick’s death is still commemorated, although it has evolved from a holy day to more of a secular holiday. It is Ireland’s greatest national holiday, as well as a happy day for Irish who have immigrated to other lands. In the United States it is an occasion for them to celebrate their Irish ancestry and the fact that they have overcome prejudice and stereotyping to become valuable citizens in this country.
St. Patrick’s Day evokes a variety of images and traditions. There are the leprechauns, those mischievous sprites dressed like shoemakers, who if successfully captured must tell the secret of where their pots of gold are hidden. Also part of the folklore is the Blarney Stone, that part of the wall of a castle built in 1446 in the village of Blarney, that bestows the gift of persuasive eloquence to anyone who can twist himself into position to kiss it. School children will pinch any of their classmates who have failed to wear green on that day, despite the fact that the Irish are not fond of green, since it is the color of the old flag that flew over an Ireland that was not free. The color green, corn beef and cabbage, and green beer are strictly American touches to the holiday.
St. Patrick’s Day was first publicly celebrated in America in Boston in 1737. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place not in Ireland, but in America. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762; the music and marching helped the soldiers connect with their Irish roots, and encouraged Irish patriotism to flourish.
Up until the mid-nineteenth century, most Irish immigrants in America were of the Protestant middle-class. The Great Potato Famine of 1845 forced nearly a million poor and uneducated Catholic Irish to pour into America to escape starvation. They became the object of derision by the American Protestant majority until they finally realized that their great numbers endowed them with power. They organized, and their voting block, known as the “green machine”, became important politically. The annual St. Patrick’s Day parades became a show of strength for Irish-Americans and a must-attend event for political candidates.
Today, St. Patrick’s day is celebrated by people of all backgrounds in the United States, Canada and Australia, and on a smaller scale in Japan, Singapore and Russia. Ireland traditionally has viewed St. Patrick’s Day as a religious occasion, and until the 1970s mandated that pubs would be closed on March 17th. In 1995, however, St. Patrick’s Day began to be used by the Irish government as an opportunity to showcase Ireland, and to encourage tourism. Now Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day multi-day celebration is typically attended by a million people, and features parades, concerts, outdoor theater, productions and fireworks displays.
St. Patrick’s Day has become as much an American holiday as an Irish one; it has evolved into an event where the “wearing of the green” adorns the lapel of many a person whose forefathers never have been acquainted with the shores of Ireland. And why shouldn’t it? In America we are all one.