Today (Kind of) In History: St. Patrick

I don’t actually have a lot to debunk about St. Patrick Day.  More like just giving up tidbits of information.

Feast Day

March 17 is the official feast day for St. Patrick.  Theoretically, it’s the date of his death.  In truth, we have no idea when he died, nor, to the best of my knowledge, how he died.  Unlike many early saints, Patrick was not a martyr.  Had he died for his faith, the story of it would certainly have been repeated.

Although Ireland certainly has significant St. Patrick’s Day celebration, most of the largest celebrations are actually in the United States.  The US has a large number of Irish immigrants, and they have strongly held on to that cultural identity.  The celebration of Ireland’s patron saint is a way of embracing that identity.  Of course, there’s also huge numbers of non-Irish who also celebrate the day, mostly as an excuse to drink.

Driving Out the Snakes

St. Patrick is most well known for a few things, one of which is driving all the snakes out of Ireland.  In truth, there have never been snakes in Ireland, as is the case on a few other islands in the world.

The Shamrock

The traditional tale is that Patrick used the three-leaved shamrock to explain the Christian trinity to Irish pagans.  We have no evidence of this story before the 17th century.

Some people claim the shamrock was sacred to the Celts, the pagan people of Ireland, although to the best of my knowledge that isn’t true.  People love ascribing all sorts of things to the Celts (and other pagans) to explain modern beliefs and practices (such as everything they totally didn’t contribute to Halloween), presuming current ideas are thousands of years old.  Always be wary when someone invokes the Celts as an explanation of just about anything.

Green and Blue

With the association of shamrocks came the color of green.  However, Patrick has also been associated with blue for at least as long.

Converting the Irish

While there were certainly Christians in Ireland before Patrick (such as Bishop Palladius, parts of whose story may have eventually been adopted by that of Patrick), there’s no specific reason to doubt the claim that he did, in fact, convert many pagan Irishmen to Christianity.  Patrick lived in the 5th century, the same time that Ireland did very quickly convert to Christianity, and that process happened remarkably quickly.

Confessio of Patrick

one of the things in Patrick’s favor is that he left writings for us to study, which many very early saints did not.  This lets us accept with some certainly that Patrick did, in fact, exist, and that at least parts of his story are actual history.

Out knowledge of Patrick comes primarily from his Confessio, in which he tells us of how he was born in England, kidnapped to Ireland as a slave, escapes, and then later returned as a priest and missionary.  Not surprisingly, there are no mentions of shamrocks or snakes.


The image used today is from a modern stain glass window in a California church.  While many modern images do use snakes or shamrocks, this image simply depicts him as a bishop (represented by hat and crook) carrying an image of a church, representing his contributions to the growing of Christianity in Ireland.

Saint Patrick (window)” by SicarrFlickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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