The Feast of Saint Patrick, better known under the name of Saint Patrick´s Day, is a cultural and religious celebration, which is annually held on March 17th. That is the date traditionally attributed to the death of patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick. A long time before it became an official Christian feast day in the 17th century, people of Irish descent celebrated the day with remarkable pride.1 With the British conversion to Protestantism in the 1530s and the establishment of the Anglican Church, the Feast of Saint Patrick had troubles with being part of the religious calendar. Despite the trouble with recognizing the feast day in the newly declared Church of England, the Saint Patrick´s Day still prevailed in the public memory of Irish Catholic population both in Ireland and Britain.2 In 1631 in the Vatican, the feast of Saint Patrick was added to the Christian Church calendar by Pope Urban VIII and in 1687 the feast was further recognized by Pope Innocent XI in his lessons.3 The year 1729 gave rise to a regular celebration of Saint Patrick´s Day among the Protestant population in Ireland, when during that year´s celebration the bells of Protestant churches, such as the St Patrick´s Cathedral in Dublin, were ringing.4 Behind the notable development in marking the 17 March with a spirit of celebration is also King George III and his introduction of the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick given to honourable knights from 1783 until 1936.5 In these days, the celebration of the Feast of Saint Patrick can be observed in many countries all around the world, due to the extensive Irish emigration, and by various churches, such as the Catholic Church, Anglican Communion to which the Church of Ireland belongs, then also Lutheran Church and Eastern Orthodox Church. The celebration is held annually as a commemoration of the arrival of Christianity to Ireland, but also as the celebration of culture and heritage of the Irish community in general.6 In the recountal of the story behind the celebrations of the Feast of Saint Patrick I will focus on St Patrick himself and his life before and after his arrival to Ireland, then I will change the focus of the story to how the commemoration of Saint Patrick has spread to world and what form did the celebrations take.
People of Irish descent all around the world celebrate Saint Patrick as the foremost patron of Ireland even though he himself was not Irish. There are diverse opinions concerning the place of birth of this man; some intellectuals say he was born in France, others mention Wales, but the most probable view is that he was born somewhere in Scotland, near the present Dumbarton. What caused this said diversity in opinions is the fact that it is hardly possible to name with certainty the ancient cities which are mentioned in connection with his birth. Considerable diversity of opinions also occurs in the debate of the precise year he was born. A.D. 372 is usually assigned as the very date of his birth, but no person can be really sure due to the lack of any valid document providing the exact year.7 All the information that we have today about Saint Patrick and his life is derived from two Latin works, Declaration (Latin: Confessio) and Letters to the soldiers of Coroticus (Epistola) that are generally accepted to have been written by Patrick himself, but in neither of them, any dates can be found.8 However, it is known that he was born in Roman Britain to wealthy parents who named him Maewyn, but in his writings, he refers to himself as Patricius. The English version of this Latin word is Patrick.9 Despite the fact that his father, Calpurnius, was a deacon and his grandfather, Potitus, was a Catholic priest10, Patrick himself was not an active believer. This, along with other important information about his early life, was provided in his book Confessio. It is believed that at the age of sixteen he was captured by a group of Irish raiders who took him to Ireland to enslave him. He was sold to a chieftain named Miliuc in northern Ireland, today´s Ulster. Prior to his capture and enslavement, he, as it is written in his Confessio, had broken the God´s Commandments and therefore believed that the enslavement was a punishment he deserved.11 During the long six years in captivity, he found comfort and solace in constant prayers. One day a vision possessed him; a voice of God was telling him it was time to finally leave Ireland.12 He decided to follow the message and by the coast, he found a ship that was ready to sail. He begged the crew to take him aboard, but at first, they refused. Eventually, he was taken with them but there, on board of the ship, he met similar fortune; they enslaved him as a miracle-maker, therefore he was once again forced to escape. After that, he devoted his life to God and studies in Europe, where in one of his visions he heard the voice of Irish pagans begging him to come and help convert them to Christianity. He dedicated approximately fifteen years of his life to the studies before he set sail on his mission.13
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When Saint Patrick finally came to Ireland in the 5th century with a mission to convert the Pagan Celtic population to Christianity, he faced the uncertainty of his success. There are disputes behind the reasons of his mission to Ireland, being whether he was sent there by the Bishop of Rome, as the unsuccessful missionary called Palladius was the year before him, or whether it was by his own account. Two knowledgeable Roman Catholic writers, Colgan and Dr. Lanigan, studied this matter further and they came to the conclusion that there is no explicit evidence providing the information that Saint Patrick was delegated to the mission by the Pope. Not even in his book, Confessio, does Saint Patrick write about being sent on the mission by Rome.14 When he came to Ireland, it is believed that he landed in the area of County Wicklow, in the province of Leinster, and started preaching there, but he was driven out just as his predecessor Palladius in A.D. 431. He was forced to seek more welcoming place further north somewhere around the coast of Down, the area of his previous captivity. His first successful conversion to Christianity was the chieftain of the district called Dichu and then the subordinates, who soon followed his example. To celebrate this event, Saint Patrick decided to build his first Christian church in Ireland, Sabhall Phadruig or Patrick´s Barn, and as a reminder of this action, it became his final resting place.15 One of Saint Patrick´s most remarkable events of his life was the preaching on Easter-day in the year A.D. 435 at Tara, the seat of high king´s and national parliament16, where they all met to celebrate a Pagan a festival, probably called Beltane. Throughout this festival, all the flames were quenched and everyone was waiting for the king, at the time it was Lagohaire, to light his own fire at the hill of Tara. He was horrified when he saw the flames of Saint Patrick´s campfire and urged his companions to go to the place where they were met with Patrick´s preaching of Christianity.17 After a few years of his missions around the island, he came back to the province of Leinster, where he met with failure in A.D 432, but now managed to successfully plant the religion of Christ there. At this time, the only remaining province he did not reach yet was Munster18 and the reason behind it is that some part of the Irish population in the province was already Christian; therefore his presence was not as necessary as in the other parts of the island.19 According to the available information, he had spent about seven years there in the province of Munster before returning back north to Down around the year of A.D 452. Near the end of his life, he has written his famous Confessio, the most reliable document concerning his life, for the people of Ireland, providing them with the incentives that led him to his mission. The year of his death is shrouded in the cloud of uncertainty, but it is generally believed that it was around A.D. 492, which means that Saint Patrick died being roughly 120 years old.20
As a commemoration of the arrival of Christianity to Ireland, the whole Irish Diaspora turns green in celebrations of Saint Patrick´s Day. As the Irish emigrated in great numbers from the home island, either because of the religious restrictions or the famine, they brought with them their traditions and customs, one of them being their patron saint, to various parts of the world. In the last couple of decades, the Saint Patrick´s Day became widely celebrated in North America, Australia and New Zealand, British Isles, but also in far regions such as Japan, Korea, Russia and Malaysia.21 Despite the fact that Saint Patrick´s Day is traditionally connected to Catholic Ireland, the first parade was held on March 17, 1737, in Boston, where the Irish of Protestant faith met to honour the patron saint of Ireland. The reason behind the celebration was that the Charitable Irish Society of Boston wanted to improve the welfare of the Irish immigrants.22 New York became the second big city on the eastern coast of the United States, where the Irish community would remember their homeland and their patron Saint on March 17, 1762. When the American War of Independence was nearing, the parades of Saint Patrick were held for a completely different purpose; instead of honouring the patron, they were serving as an encouragement for the loyal Irish-Americans to stand on the British side. Only after the rise in numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants in the 1830s did the parades begin to be Catholic in character.23 Unlike the parades in honour of Saint Patrick in America that have been held since 1737, the ones in the land of their northern neighbour, Canada, would not take place until the century later. The Hibernian Society of Montreal organized a formal dinner in recognition of their homeland in 1824 and this official event was not restricted to a specific religious group or a nationality. All the people of Hibernia were “united in a brotherly love”24 and the celebrations have been held in this spirits without interruption until this day. Similarly, the Saint Patrick´s Day has been celebrated in Australia without religious and social segregation for a few decades, but then, around the 1840s the social consciousness gave rise to a division of the celebrations based on a hierarchical belonging.25 The question was what character the celebrations would take with the continuous expansion of Irishness and how much would it change through the centuries. The standard way of celebrating the Saint Patrick´s Day became highly associated with the wearing of the green, which was the colour connected to Catholicism in Ireland; adoring shamrocks that represented the Holy Trinity in Saint Patrick´s preaching; and the indulging in excessive drinking of alcohol. That was the image of the celebration a few centuries ago and it stays more or less the same now.26
The celebrations of Saint Patrick on March 17th overcame many obstacles in order to be universally acknowledged as a national religious holiday, until the beginning of the last century, when the holiday became officially a public one. Despite being an Irish Christian holiday, the first celebration of Saint Patrick was held not in Ireland, but in the British colony of America. As the celebration of the patron saint of Ireland spread to faraway lands from the home country, Saint Patrick´s Day began to be celebrated not only by the Catholic Irish as the commemoration of their conversion to Christianity, but more by all Irish immigrants united as one group, not divided by religious faith, to celebrate their Irish origin and their homeland. It has been widely celebrated in this spirit, the pride to be of Irish origin, up to this date in all corners of the world.
1 Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair, The Wearing of the Green, A History of St Patrick´s Day (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 1.
2 Cronin and Adair, 3.
3 Cronin and Adair, 1.
4 Cronin and Adair, 4.
5 Cronin and Adair, 3.
6 Cronin and Adair, 1.
7 “Sketch of the Life of St. Patrick,” The Catholic Layman 1, no. 3 (1852): 25-26, accessed January 27, 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30064878.
8 B. W. Wells, “St. Patrick’s Earlier Life,” The English Historical Review 5, no. 19 (1890): 475-85, accessed January 27, 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/546449.
9 Edna Barth, Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick´s Day Symbols (New York: Clarion Books, 2001), 9.
10 “Sketch of the Life of St. Patrick,” The Catholic Layman 1, no. 3 (1852): 25-26, accessed January 27, 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30064878.
11 Barth, Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick´s Day Symbols, 11.
12 “The History of St. Patrick´s Day” History.com, accessed January 27, 2018. https://web.archive.org/web/20060806031706/http:/www.historychannel.com:80/exhibits/stpatricksday/?page=patrick.
13 Barth, Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick´s Day Symbols, 13.
14 “Sketch of the Life of St. Patrick,” The Catholic Layman 1, no. 3 (1852): 25-26, accessed January 27, 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30064878.
15 “Sketch of the Life of St. Patrick,” The Catholic Layman 1, no. 3 (1852): 25-26, accessed January 27, 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30064878.
16 “Sketch of the Life of St. Patrick,” The Catholic Layman 1, no. 3 (1852): 25-26, accessed January 27, 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30064878.
17 Barth, Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick´s Day Symbols, 16.
18 “Sketch of the Life of St. Patrick,” The Catholic Layman 1, no. 3 (1852): 25-26, accessed January 27, 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30064878.
19 Barth, Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick´s Day Symbols, 15.
20 “Sketch of the Life of St. Patrick,” The Catholic Layman 1, no. 3 (1852): 25-26, accessed January 27, 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30064878.
21 Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair, The Wearing of the Green, A History of St Patrick´s Day (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 7.