Here’s To the Apostle of Ireland

Based on the celebrations that take place every March 17th, many people assume that Saint Patrick is the patron saint of rowdy drunks.  That is not true; Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, which may account for the confusion.

It is also not true that St. Patrick eradicated snakes from Ireland — the icy waters that surround the country have been an effective deterrent for many thousands of years.  It’s possible that particular legend got its start in the ancient belief that serpents represented evil, so Patrick’s missionary work may have been symbolically understood as banishing snakes.

One of the few things we know for certain about St. Patrick is that there is very little about him that is known for certain.  He was born in 387, or 460, or 420, depending on which source you choose to believe.  He lived in Britain, but was kidnapped as a teenager, taken to Ireland, and sold into slavery.  (That info comes from one of two surviving letters that are generally accepted as having been written by Patrick himself.)

Around the time he was twenty, he had a dream in which God told him how to escape and get home to Britain.  He did so, but soon after that he had another dream, this one urging his return to Ireland as God’s messenger.  Only saints have dreams of this sort, apparently.  My dreams tend to be about smoking cigarettes or having to take a final exam for which I have not studied.

Patrick became a priest and went back to Ireland in 433 (if he was alive then).  Many Druids and pagans converted to Christianity through his efforts, and he supposedly used the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity — three leaves on one stem representing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Today, of course, the shamrock symbolizes the concept “Kiss me, I’m Irish”.

By tradition, it is believed that St. Patrick died on March 17, 461.  Or 493.  Or somewhere around that time.  It was many centuries later that his feast day came to be associated with parades, wearing green, and binge drinking.  In the late 19th century, Irish immigrants were pejoratively referred to as “Paddies”, a corruption of Padraig, the Celtic form of the saint’s name.  That usage extended to the police vans that came to be called Paddy Wagons.  There are a couple of conflicting versions of how that term entered the lexicon:  One holds that Irish-Americans were rounded up and carted off to jail in them.  The other version has the “Paddies” (please excuse the disparaging term) in the driver’s seat, so to speak:  By the early 20th century, many Irish-Americans had become police officers.

So how did the feast day of the Apostle of Ireland come to be associated with slurred speech, fist fights, and public urination?  One might also ask, how did St. Nicholas come to be honored by the maxing out of credit cards?  Why do we venerate St. Valentine with chocolate and lingerie?  No one knows.  I could offer a guess about St. Patrick’s Day, though:  It comes during the Lenten season, so maybe it gives the religiously inclined a one-day break from those forty days of pious behavior.  And by the way, if you were wondering whose feast day is March 18… there is no Saint Tylenol.

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