The Real St Patrick’s Day

Last night as I drove home from work I heard something on the radio that gave me pause and made me feel a bit embarrassed because I have to admit I have fallen into the very category mentioned. Which category is that? The category full of Americans who wrongly assume that St Patrick’s Day is about nothing more than tossing back a few pints and getting stone cold drunk if you’re Irish. That’s the image that’s rampantly projected all around the US. Well, I’m putting a stop to it, to the extent I can, right here. Because I am part Irish and damn proud of my heritage.

So let’s see what the Real St Patrick’s Day is all about (from the perspective of those to whom the holiday truly belongs)…

According to the Wikipedia entry for Saint Patrick’s Day – which in this case I’m sure is quite trustworthy – it is a cultural and religious holiday celebrated every 17 March. I know of a similar holiday here in New Orleans which has similar origins yet is often billed as the Greatest Free Show on Earth: Mardi Gras. Yes, there’s a lot of partying that goes on during Mardi Gras, but people tend to overlook that it’s the lead in to one of the longest periods of religious fasting of the year: Lent.

Anyway back to St Patrick’s Day. The religious aspect of the holiday is the celebration of Christianity being brought to and spread among the pagan Irish by none other than the saint himself. This is what little information we know about who Patrick was:

Little is known of Patrick’s early life, though it is known that he was born in Roman Britain in the fourth century, into a wealthy Romano-British family. His father and grandfather were deacons in the Christian church in Ireland. At the age of sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken captive to Ireland as a slave.

It is believed he was held somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, possibly Mayo, but the exact location is unknown. According to his Confession, he was told by God in a dream to flee from captivity to the coast, where he would board a ship and return to Britain. Upon returning, he quickly joined the Church in Auxerre in Gaul and studied to be a priest.

In 432, he again said that he was called back to Ireland, though as a bishop, to Christianise the Irish from their native polytheism. Irish folklore tells that one of his teaching methods included using the shamrock to explain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to the Irish people. After nearly thirty years of evangelism, he died on 17 March 461, and according to tradition, was buried at Downpatrick. Although there were other more successful missions to Ireland from Rome, Patrick endured as the principal champion of Irish Christianity and is held in esteem in the Irish church.

In the village of Heysham, there are ruins of a tiny chapel on a bluff overlooking Morecambe Bay called St Patrick’s Chapel. I’ve been there twice and it’s a lovely quiet place. It’s supposedly where St Patrick landed when he left Ireland to return to his home in England. Whether it’s true or not, the ruins are beautiful to see and the site is fun to explore.

St Patrick’s Day in Ireland is generally celebrated by attending mass in the morning and having a huge feast in honour of the patron of Ireland. Although 17 March usually falls within the days of Lent, when Catholics are traditionally forbidden to consume meat, this was waived for Ireland and cabbage and Irish bacon were traditionally eaten. Today, corned beef and cabbage are the staple of this holiday.


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