St Patrick’s Day is celebrated every year on 17th March, the date recognised as the death date of the patron Saint of Ireland in 461 C.E.
There is some dispute as to which of the actions and histories attributed to St. Patrick are actually his own, and which belong to a contemporary of his called Palladius, who was sent to Ireland in 431 for what is believed to be two purposes; ministering to the existing Christians living in Ireland at the time, and to prevent the exiled Pelagians from establishing themselves in the existing communities of Christians throughout Ireland.
St. Patrick himself was born in Roman Britain. He was not a spiritual child, but at the age of 16 he was kidnapped by Irish pirates, taken to Ireland and forced into slavery as a shepherd, where he spent 6 years, during which time he was converted to Christianity and ‘forgiven his sins by God’.
After 6 years of captivity, he started hearing voices, the first telling him that he would soon go home, and the second telling him that his ship was ready. He ran away from his masters, and after a two hundred mile trek, managed to persuade a captain to take him on his ship. He left the ship three weeks later, (presumably in Britain) and eventually returned to his family to continue his studies in Christianity.
Following a vision, Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary. He originally landed close to the town of Wicklow, in County Wicklow. According to tradition, he was not welcomed by the locals, and was chased out to find a more welcoming reception further north. He spent some time in the islands off the Skerries coast, where one island still bears his name.
He was accused of some crimes and, although the specific nature of the charges are unknown, his responses to these charges can lead us to believe that he was accused of some sort of financial irregularities.
His mission was clear, he stated that he had ‘baptised thousands of people’, and converted wealthy ladies, and even sons of kings, as well as ordaining priests to look after the growing congregation.
There are a number of legends about Patrick. He is associated with the shamrock, which, according to legend, he used to describe the holy trinity, and as a result the shamrock has been associated with St. Patrick and with Irish identity.
There is also a legend of St. Patrick being disturbed by snakes during a forty day fast that he was having on the top of a hill. According to the legend, he chased all the snakes into the sea. It has been suggested more recently that there never were any snakes in Ireland following the retreat of the glaciers after the last ice age. The story could be linked to the staff of Moses, who transformed his staff into a snake when dealing with the sorcerers of the Pharaoh. It could also be a symbolic reference to the Druids, who used snakes as part of their symbolism.
St. Patrick’s Day itself is celebrated largely in Ireland, but also to a great extent in the USA, where large Irish immigrant populations brought the traditions over with them. The day falls in the middle of the period of Lent, and was seen as a day to break the fasting that Lent imposes, and as such was seen as a cause for raucous celebration, and that tradition carries over to this day. The celebration often involves a large amount of Guinness, and Irish whiskey, as well as shamrocks and the colour green.
In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated since the ninth and tenth centuries, but it was not made a national holiday until 1903. In the mid nineteen nineties, the Irish government sat up the St. Patrick’s Day Festival to showcase Ireland and it’s culture, with the first festival being held in 1996. In 1997, it became a three day event, and by 2006, it was a five day event. The celebrations have moved away from their original Catholic origins, and are now a more secular event, highlighting the whole of Irish history, art, music and culture.
The biggest celebrations are, of course, held in Dublin, but also in Downpatrick, County Down, where Patrick is believed to have been buried.
In the US, St. Patrick’s Day is only legally a holiday in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, and Chatham County, Georgia, but that does not stop it being widely celebrated almost the length and breadth of the country.
The first observance of St. Patrick’s Day in the US was held in Boston, in 1737, and was later celebrated in New York in 1762. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in these and other cities helped to define the character of the Irish communities within the US, and their sense of National identity as Irish and Irish-Americans.
The celebrations are both religious and non-religious in nature, and large parades are held throughout the cities of the country. Many of the major celebrations include dying the major waterways and public fountains green in recognition of the day, and there is a more modern tradition of drinking artificially dyed green beer.
Internationally, celebrations are held in the UK, Canada, Argentina, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Montserrat, Malaysia, and even in the International Space Station.