Ireland's patron saint, St Patrick is widely celebrated by Irish people throughout the world on his feast day 17th March. But what about St Patrick himself and what does he mean to the Irish?
Go into any Irish town and you'll come across a cathedral, a church or a street named after St Patrick and if you're know anyone of Irish heritage, chances are they'll have a Patrick, a Pat, a Paddy a Padraic or a Patricia somewhere in the family. St Patrick is linked to Ireland's national emblems, a number of important religious sites and landmarks throughout Ireland, as well as countless folk tales. St Patrick is as much an integral figure in Irish cultural discourse as he is in the country's Christianity.
There is much debate about St Patrick's life. Much of what is known of him is taken from his own account in his ‘Confessio' and much more from legend. St Patrick was born around the 5th Century in the settlement of ‘vico banavem taberniae', which scholars believe to be somewhere in the west of Britain, probably Wales. He was born into a Romano-British family and his father was a deacon, but at the age of sixteen he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland.
Here he was slave to a Druidic chieftain, either in Dalradia, County Armagh or Fochill, County Mayo, where he herded sheep. After several years he escaped back to Britain and studied for the priesthood in France. After a vision in a dream, St Patrick set back out to Ireland on a mission to convert the pagans there to Christianity. Though he was by no means the first Christian mission he was certainly the most prevalent and to say he made the biggest impression on Ireland is an understatement.
Many places throughout Ireland are associated with the legends of St Patrick. The Hill of Slane, just outside Dublin was the stage for one of St Patrick's most dramatic tales. At the time the High King of Laoghaire held a feast during which he would light the first fire in the land at the royal centre of the Hill of Tara. Imagine the look on his face when he noticed that St Patrick had already lit one just a few mile away on Slane! Outraged he met with St Patrick to put out his fire, but it was indistinguishable, then the King's druids and St Patrick launched into a battle of miracles, bending the climate and elements at their will. Patrick won and it was here that St Patrick explained the mystery of the holy trinity with the humble shamrock, establishing the three-leafed flower as Ireland's national emblem, which is ubiquitously worn on St Patrick's Day.
St Patrick's other famous miracle, the banishment of the snakes, is supposed to have occurred following his Great Fast on the mount Croagh Patrick, outside Westport in County Mayo. St Patrick climbed the mountain where he fasted for 40 days, before expelling all the snakes from Ireland. The fact is that there were never actually any snakes in Ireland to expel, the whole episode is really symbolic of St Patrick converting the natives to Christianity and banishing the Druids whose symbol was the serpent. But it makes banishing the snakes makes a better story and to this day Croagh Patrick attracts thousands of pilgrims who make the trek 765ft to the summit on the last day of July.
Other places connected with St Patrick include Lough Derg in County Donegal, where according to legend the great saint killed a monster in the lake. There is a shrine to St Patrick on Station Island here, where pilgrims come to fast and hold vigil on the island for three days.
But perhaps the most important religious place claimed by St Patrick is Armagh. According to tradition it is here in this Ulster town, that St Patrick built a stone church around AD 445 and ordained it the most pre-eminent church in all of Ireland. Even today Armagh is the primary seat of both the Catholic and the Protestant churches in Ireland and both the their cathedrals in Armagh are named after St Patrick.
Not to far away, in Saul, County Down is another important site for St Patrick Pilgrims. It was here that St Patrick established his first church in a barn or Saul given to him by his first convert, a local chieftain called Dichu. It is said that when St Patrick died sometime around AD 490 on March 17th, his body was laid on an ox drawn cart, to be rested in the place he loved most. The cart stopped at Saul, where St Patrick's mission first started, and his last resting place is marked by a shrine in the grounds of Down Cathedral, which is built on the site of St Patrick's first church. St Patrick's final resting place is said to be shared by that of Ireland's other main saints; St Brigid and St Columba. Close to the Cathedral and well worth a visit, is the Saint Patrick Centre, an interpretive exhibition drawing from the details of St Patrick's own account in his ‘Confessio'. The centre also looks at how St Patrick's Day is celebrated throughout the world and what the day means to both sections of the community in Northern Ireland.
Throughout Ireland and indeed those other parts of the world that become Irish on 17th March, St Patrick's Day is celebrated with street parades, music, dance and Guinness; Craic agus Ceol and because of (or perhaps despite) the whole green leprechaun frenzy of it all, St Patrick's Day has become one of the biggest self marketing tools for Ireland. So as you can see, St Patrick isn't just a patron saint, but a champion of the Irish people and figurehead for Ireland, that through his life and legend has come to symbolising to people a sense of hope during oppression, struggle against adversity and hopefully; of unity or at the very least a good excuse for a party!
this time next month...
Conor B & Seamus.