Guest Author - Linda J. Paul
Traditions abound on St. Patrick’s Day, including wearing of the green, drinking green beer, and watching for leprechauns. St. Patrick’s Day originated, of course, in Ireland as at first a holy day and later as a symbol of Irish Nationalism. But, how many people in the western world actually think of St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday?
Actually St. Patrick’s Day was first celebrated as a holiday in America in 1737 in Boston. Even then, it was considered to be a secular holiday and not a religious one. Perhaps because of it’s non-religious overtones, it became a very popular holiday in a very short time. Because of the influx of Irish immigrants into the United States, there are now actually more people of Irish descent in the U.S. than there are in Ireland. Due to this fact perhaps, the holiday has become more important in this country than it is in Ireland.
The story of St. Patrick tells us that he was born in either Scotland or Roman England, sometime between 373 and 390 C.E. Most historians believe that his name was actually Maewyn, although he used the Roman name, Patricius or Patrick. His father may have been a Roman soldier serving in Britain. While he was with his family in Wales, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland. Some stories say he was 6 years old, some say 16.
Eventually he escaped his captors and fled to Gaul or France. It would appear that Patrick found his new faith of Christianity while in France. He claimed that God have given him visions and that God had called him to return to Ireland and convert the Irish from Paganism to Christianity. Interestingly enough, Patrick’s family were Pagan, and worshipped a pantheon of Roman Gods. But, it was not to England that Patrick was called on his mission, but back to his land of captivity, Ireland.
Patrick returned to Ireland, and began to preach Christianity, denouncing Paganism in general and Druidism in particular. Because of the politics at that time, and the power of the Druids in Ireland, Patrick was repeatedly arrested. He managed to escape each time and with each escape became more dedicated to his mission.
However, he also realized that sometimes in order to beat the enemy, you must join them first. Thus he increasingly incorporated pagan rituals, myths and beliefs into his Christian preaching. By the time of his death, he has merged many elements of Paganism and Christianity and set up monasteries staffed by Irish clergy trained in this blended wisdom.
His death is thought to have been on March 17, 461 C.E. The day of his death became a holy holiday in Ireland until about a thousand years later, when it morphed into being an Irish national day of pride.
It is the tiny 3 leaf shamrock which ties together St. Patrick and the Goddess Brigid. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. Yet, the 3 leaf shamrock had already long been a sacred plant to the Celts. It was believed that the shamrock symbolized the power of the Goddess Brigid. As the Goddess of healing, farming and smith craft, a sacred fire was kept burning in her temple in Kildare to honor these three sacred gifts to the Irish. It was the Goddess Brigit who, after the long Irish winter, would bring back the spring and the lush fields of blooming shamrocks. At a later date, when the Catholic Church named Brigid as a Christian St. they built a convent over her shrine in Kildare. They also established a ritual called “The Day of the Christian Bonfire of the Celts.”
This ritual was celebrated on the same day that the Druids had for many centuries set bonfires throughout the country in honor of the Goddess Brigid. Catholic tradition also required that St. Brigid was to be venerated by the Irish, in the same manner that the Virgin Mary was throughout Europe. She was referred to as the mystic mother and bride of St. Patrick. So, when St. Patrick died on March 17, it became a celebration of honor to Brigid as well.
St. Patrick was perhaps best known for driving the snakes out of Ireland by prayer. The fascinating thing about his feat is that, according to biologists, there have never been any snakes in Ireland as an indigenous species. Many scholars today believe this to be a symbol of Christianity driving out Paganism. One of the symbols of the Druids was the snake, so this theory would make a whole lot of sense.