March 17th marks the day we don green and down beers, all in the name of Saint Patrick. But who was the Irish lad who spurred the beloved international holiday? Well, it turns out he wasn’t really Irish at all.
The man now known as Ireland’s patron saint was actually born into a wealthy family in Britain around 400 AD (when it was still part of the Roman empire). While his family was Christian, he’s said to have become an atheist at a young age.
“The stories we hear about him — how he drove the snakes out of Ireland and how he used the shamrock [to explain the holy trinity] — are not true,” said classics professor Philip Freeman of Luther College in Iowa. “There’s no historical basis to that. But the real story, I think, is much more interesting.”
For starters, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates when he was 16 and taken to Ireland, where he was sold into slavery. After about seven years, he managed to escape, which Freeman said “no one had ever done before.”
Following a short stint back home, Patrick decided to return to Ireland as a missionary. He later became a priest and a bishop and spent the rest of his life in Ireland, before passing away on March 17, 461.
He was largely forgotten for a couple centuries until the 600s. That’s when the church in northern Ireland began to celebrate him as a saint and his following spread from there.
Little is known about him, though, apart from two very short but revealing letters in Latin that he wrote about his life and work in the late 400s AD.
“It comes out in both of his letters how concerned he is about enslaved women in Ireland…He talks about his insecurities, his struggles, about fighting against depression,” said Freeman.
“I think what the letters reveal are a man who worked incredibly hard, who was full of self-doubt, and yet who kept going year after year.”
“He’s just a great inspirational guy, whatever religious background a person may have.”
St. Patrick’s Day started as a small, religious holiday in Ireland. And believe it or not, for the first nearly six decades, bars had to stay closed because the holiday falls during Lent. The law was lifted in 1961; and now, 13 million pints of Guinness are sold around the world on March 17th.
Freeman said today’s St. Patrick’s Day traditions evolved across the pond when Irish immigrants came to Canada and the United States following the potato famine of the 1840s.
“It’s the Irish immigrants who invented St. Patrick’s Day as we know it.”
“They remembered the old country and wanted to have a day that they could be proud of. Because the Irish were treated very badly in North America by a lot of people…And so they began parades,” Freeman explained.
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“It’s spread way beyond being a religious holiday or even being an Irish holiday and it’s just now, I think, the chance to celebrate the end of a long, cold winter,” Freeman said.
“And to drink a lot of beer.”
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