St. Patrick’s Day - A History

Though each March 17 most of us head to the local pub — adorned in green, some even donning the Lucky Charms leprechaun-style felt hat — to throw back the Guinness and toast to St. Patrick, how much do we really know about the man whose day we’re celebrating? Here are a few facts for those lacking in St. Paddy’s Day knowledge.

The fella who became St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was born in Wales about AD 385. At age 16 he was sold into slavery by a group of Irish marauders that raided his village. He was held captive in Ireland for six years before escaping to Gaul, where he studied in the monastery under St. Germain for 12 years. While there, he decided his calling was to convert the pagans of Ireland to Christianity. Patrick was appointed as second bishop to Ireland and set about winning converts. He traveled throughout Ireland, establishing monasteries across the country and setting up schools and churches to aid him in stamping out paganism. His mission in Ireland lasted for 30 years, after which he retired to County Down. Patrick died on March 17 in AD 461.

Though his feast day has been observed in Ireland for thousands of years, the St. Patrick’s Day custom didn’t make it to America until 1737, when it was publicly celebrated in Boston, Massachusetts. Patrick’s death marked the celebration day, but other St. Paddy’s traditions have very little to do with the actual saint. For instance, although cabbage has long been an Irish food, corned beef only began to be associated with St. Patrick’s Day at the turn of the century, when Irish immigrants living on New York City’s Lower East Side, looking to save some cash, substituted corned beef for their traditional dish of Irish bacon.

The happy-go-lucky leprechaun is also a modern creation, thanks to Walt Disney. Leprechauns had nothing to do with St. Patrick or the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, a Catholic holy day until 1959 when Disney released Darby O’Gill & the Little People, which introduced American audiences to a cheery, friendly leprechaun — a far cry from the tricky, cantankerous wee man of Irish folklore. Still, he is now a symbol of both St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland in general.

The only icon that does actually stem from St. Patrick is the shamrock. Irish tales tell of Patrick using the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity. His followers adopted the custom of wearing a shamrock on his feast day, and so revelers still do today.

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