Like Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day in much of the world has evolved into a day of celebration that may not exactly befit the man that it honors. Where December 25 has its commercialism and flying reindeer, St. Patrick’s Day has its green beer and leprechauns. Of course, it was unlikely that Patrick added food coloring to his ale and very likely that the sight of little men dressed in green would have sent him reaching for his cross in prayer.
Underneath all the pomp of St. Patty’s Day, what are people celebrating? You might not know it from all that lager pouring from pub spigots across the land, but March 17 is the date that St. Patrick died.
St. Patrick—a fifth-century Christian missionary turned bishop—is considered the “Apostle of Ireland.” He was born in Britain when it was part of the Roman Empire. At 16 years old, he was taken captive by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland as a slave. For six years, he herded and tended sheep, but also learned the Irish language and culture. He survived the ordeal through prayer, and when he heard a voice tell him that a ship was waiting to take him home, he escaped to a port that was 200 miles away.
Some versions of the legend tell us that he was captured again during this journey and held in Tours, France, for 60 days. But his imprisonment doesn’t seem all that bad as it’s said that this is where he learned about the contemplative monastic life from local monks. Another version says that his ship successfully landed on England’s shores, whereupon he and an entourage trekked through the harsh wilderness for 28 days. Regardless of the story you believe, the devout seem to all agree that he soon saw a vision of St. Victoricus—the bishop of Rouen who had died in the previous century—urging him to return to Ireland with God’s message.
When he arrived, controversy brought his finances and motives into question, but he remained unwavering in his faith and dedication. His earlier captivities served him well here. He was fluent in Ireland’s language and culture and had immersed himself in monasticism. With these experiences guiding him, he founded more than 300 churches and baptized over 100,000 people. To the astonishment of many, some of his conversions were sons of kings; he even persuaded wealthy women from elite circles to become nuns. Whispers of scandal followed him, largely because he refused all association with the reigning royalty. On one occasion, he was beaten, robbed, and put in chains to await execution.
Still, he prevailed. One surprising tool he used in his teaching was the modest little shamrock—the three-leaf clover. For him, it illustrated the Holy Trinity in the simplest and purest manner. Three entities could live in one God, he told his followers, in the same way these three tiny leaves could live in one plant. His teaching was so effective because the number three was also revered in the pagan religion. So it turned out that the modest little shamrock had been held as sacred long before Patrick arrived.
The significance of St. Patrick to Irish people all over the world has changed over time. Though he arrived as a Christian, he later became associated with indigenous religious identities, too, transforming him into a kind of hybrid spiritual figure. Today, Catholic Ireland embraces him as its patron saint and Irish Catholics everywhere revere him, as evidenced by the many cathedrals named for him. More than this, he has come to symbolize Irish national identity—a patron worth raising a pint of green beer to with a hearty toast.