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