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History > The Real St Patrick
The Real Saint Patrick
In our modern times, religion continues to be systematically stripped from our governments, schools, and even our history. To many, Christmas is all about Santa Claus and Easter about bunny rabbits and eggs. Likewise, St Patrick’s Day, celebrated annually on March 17, is now about wearing green and gold, shamrocks, the luck of the Irish, leprechauns, and finding the nearest Irish pub. While it’s a fun celebration, particularly for Irish nationals and Irish immigrants worldwide, its true meaning and origin has been minimized or even completely forgotten by many. One of the largest St Patrick’s Day sites currently on the web (our article is written in 2010) devotes almost its entire front page to the various secular festivities. It offers three vanilla sentences to St Patrick himself, with a link for more information. This is still better than the official Dublin Site which, along with many others, doesn't even mention the saint at all. Finally, the last sentence on the page reads “Being a religious holiday as well, many Irish attend mass, where March 17th is the traditional day for offering prayers for missionaries worldwide before the serious celebrating begins”. So, the true meaning of the holiday has been reduced to an afterthought, an “as well” to be dispensed of quickly so that the serious celebration can begin.
[2015 Update - This year, we're happy to report that the St Patrick's Day site is much improved. The site is more balanced between the sacred and the secular, having added a link (mostly wiki) containing some personal information on St Patrick that also includes his missionary work. In addition, there is a link to some excellent photos of some Historical Sacred sites that have been linked to the Patron Saint. Unfortunately, this is a rare exception among the many secular-only web pages associated with the holiday.]
Of course, the holiday wasn’t always thought of in this way. St Patrick’s Day began solely as a Christian holiday to pay tribute the patron saint and missionary to Ireland, marked by prayers for spiritual renewal and international missionaries. It became a saint’s official feast day in the early seventeenth century, but like most other religious holidays, it gradually became more secularized. The first St Patrick’s Day parade was organized by the Irish Society of Boston in 1737, with the first Ireland parade held in Dublin in 1931.
In the 1990’s the Irish government created the St Patrick’s Festival, a marketing group charged with using the holiday to promote Ireland and its culture. The first festival was held on March 17, 1996, then expanding each year. In 2009, the festival had grown to five days with an attendance of almost 700,000 people.
So, who was St Patrick, the only missionary to be honored with a global holiday? He was the patron saint who brought Christianity to much of Ireland in the fifth century. We obtain most of our knowledge about him from his spiritual autobiography, the Confessio, and his Epistola, an account of the mistreatment of Irish Christians by the British.
St Patrick was born about 387AD along the banks of the River Clyde in England, but this area is now Kilpatrick, Scotland. He was the grandson of a priest and the son of a deacon. When Patrick was in his mid-teens, pirates raided and torched his village, taking him as a slave to Ireland, where he later became a Christian while in captivity. When he was about twenty, he escaped, made his way to the coast, and found some sailors that took him back to England, where he was reunited with his family and swore never to return to Ireland.
Several years later however, Patrick had a dream reminiscent of those of Peter’s and Paul’s, in which he envisioned an Irishman pleading with him to return and evangelize Ireland. After studying and being ordained in the priesthood, he returned to Ireland, carrying only his clothes and a Latin Bible. Soon, crowds were flocking to him due to his powerful preaching, but he was opposed by the superstitious Druids who sought to kill him.
On the eve of Easter about 433 AD, St Patrick lit a bonfire on Slane Hill in defiance of a Druid law that forbid any fires in the vicinity of the Druid pagan festival fire on Tara Hill. This could have be considered an act of war by the King of Tara, however the king was so impressed by St Patrick’s defiance, or possibly his confidence or devotion, that the king allowed him to continue his services and mission work. Other accounts maintain that Patrick defeated the Druid chieftains that day by divine power when one was lifted into the air and smashed on a rock, and another was unable to lift his arms until he ceased hostilities. It is also held that on this day, Patrick plucked up and used a shamrock to roughly explain the Trinity to the Druids, a technique he often used with his Irish listeners. Thus, St Patrick continued his work for over forty years, evangelizing most of Ireland, building numerous churches (over 200 by some accounts), and baptized tens of thousands of new believers.
St Patrick’s died on March 17, 490 AD (some accounts have 460 or 461), but his continues to live on through his writings, as well as those writings, prayers and hymns of the Irish Church. One of the oldest hymns still sung today, Be Thou My Vision, came out of the Irish church. The hymn was translated into English in 1905 by Dublin scholar Mary Elizabeth Byrne. A few years later, Eleanor Hull of Manchester England crafted it into verses with rhyme and meter. In the eight century, the words had been attributed to Dallan Forgaill in a work entitled Rob tu mo bhoile, a Comdi cride, but the folk song from which it derived is believed to originate shortly after that Easter eve on Slane Hill. In fact, the hymn was set to the tune of this original Irish folk song, simply called Slane.
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
High King of Heaven, my victory won,