Saint Patrick: Legend, Myth, or History?

snakes

Today many a person will find themselves donning a green polo-shirt and visiting their favorite pub to drink green beer on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Saint Patrick’s Day was brought to the U.S. in the 19th century by transplants from the Emerald Isle. These Irish immigrants brought their Catholic processionals to the great cities of New York and Boston where you can still see the parades hosted today.

The Saint is accompanied by several stories of grand spectacle. One of these stories revolves around Patrick chasing the snakes out of Ireland. While this story would make for a great Cecil B. Demille or Marvel Comics film, it is pure fantasy, there have been no snakes in Ireland since pre-Ice Age. Not so for Scotland whose serpents serendipitously managed to survive; home to two species, one the poisonous adder.

So what about Saint Patrick is true? His Hollywood style origin story starts with Patrick being captured from Roman occupied Britain and made a slave by Irish pirates.  As the story goes it was in Ireland while working as a shepard that Patrick became a convert to Christianity. It was not until going back to Britain and subsequently returning to Ireland did Patrick become what many historians believe to be a self-ordained Bishop. Patrick may have given himself a promotion.

Saint Patrick was not the first to attempt wide-spread conversion to the Roman introduced Christian faith, to compound the confusion surrounding his tale is the theory of “Two Patricks”. It is believed much of what we assume to be true of Saint Patrick may fist be attributed to one or more earlier missionaries from the Catholic Church, and for the record, Saint Patrick was never formally canonized.

Saint Patrick, neither a saint nor Irish. So what did he do? The man whose name in Latin was Patricus may have in fact converted the last of any Irish pagan hold-outs to Christianity. The legend tells of Patrick using the Irish shamrock and its three leaves to tell the story of Christ and the trinity. One theory states that it was his use of the shamrock that converted the last of the Druid population. Others tie Patrick’s story of banishing snakes to the final conversion of the Druids, perhaps forcing any remaining followers to go underground like fleeing serpents.

The truth of Patrick in no way spoils the fun of the day. Have a drink and celebrate the day with friends. Opt out of the green beer and go for a Guinness in stead…and don’t forget that green polo.

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