Life as a Mean Green student is about to get greener (but not meaner) with St. Patrick’s Day around the corner.

And if you grew up outside of Ireland, you might have some lingering questions about this day of green parades. Such as:

  • Why does this country go so out of its way to celebrate another nation’s heritage every single year?
  • What’s up with those shamrocks, anyway?
  • Who was Saint Patrick and why does he get a whole day to himself and not me?
  • Did he really battle snakes? 

These are all good questions about this holiday! And we had them, too. So we did some research with some help from books available at UNT Libraries.

St. Patrick’s Day might seem like an excuse to take a day off, but its roots trace back centuries and are fundamentally intertwined with one of Europe’s richest cultures. Let’s dispel some St. Patrick’s Day myths and find some answers.

 

The truth and myth of Saint Patrick


Saint Patrick Catholic Church (Junction City, Ohio)

Everything we know about Saint Patrick comes from just two of his surviving works: The Confession of St. Patrick and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Any biographical details we know for certain come from those two sources.

So, not a lot then.

But here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know: Saint Patrick wasn’t Irish at all. No, the man named Patricius (Latin for "nobleman") was born in Britain during Roman rule over the nation from 43 A.D. to 410 A.D. Per his Confessions, Patrick was not a believer until he was kidnapped by Irish pirates at age 16 and enslaved in Ireland for six years.

It was there that Patrick found God while working as a shepherd in captivity in Ireland. Patrick wrote that God had mercy on his youth and ignorance and told him after six years that the time was right to flee and return home.

After he returned home and left for Europe to become a priest, Patrick returned to Ireland many years later. There, in the land that had once been his prison, Patrick set about baptizing thousands of Irish people, who were mostly pagan at the time.

This is the truth we know of Patrick, at least the truth that he recorded. The myths are what he is most famous for. Among them, legends tell that St. Patrick:

  • Taught the Irish about the Holy Trinity by using the shamrock leaf as a prop to illustrate his point. This is why the shamrock is such a traditional Irish symbol. Three was already an important number in pagan Ireland.
  • Banished all of the snakes from Ireland after one attacked him during a fast. In fact, fossil records suggest Ireland never had snakes.
  • Thrust his walking stick into the ground while he was evangelizing in one town, and it took so long for the populace to get his message that his walking stick grew into a tree.

Okay, that’s neat.

 

But why does he have his own day to himself?

Uh, people thought he fought thousands of snakes back into the sea? Why doesn't he have a whole month to himself?

In all seriousness, it's an interesting notion. Patrick has never been officially canonized by the Pope. Considering his popularity and esteem around the world (and particularly in Ireland) he’s about as unofficial a saint as they come.

 

Irish Identity

St. Patrick’s Causeway, a pilgrimage trail in Ireland. This statue is at Ballintubber Abbey. (Ed O’Keeffe)

Saint Patrick and Irish identity have become intertwined over the centuries, as tales of his deeds and travels became more and more of a fixture in Irish folklore.

In addition, the monasteries he built in Ireland went on to become great centers of learning, and through those efforts to introduce education through the Catholic church Ireland was dragged out of their pagan age into an age of literacy and record-keeping as most of Europe fell into dark ages with Roman society’s collapse.

With that kind of lasting legacy of knowledge and spirituality, it’s no wonder Saint Patrick’s presence has loomed large over Irish culture for centuries.

 

The Day of Parades

St. Patrick's Day in Dublin (Getty Images)

The Saint Patrick feast day didn’t exist until the early 1600s. It’s celebrated on March 17 (the day of Saint Patrick’s death) every year.

That date just so happens to fall during Lent, the traditional Christian time of fasting until Easter. Irish Christians were allowed to take a day off for St. Patrick’s Day, so you can imagine the amount of, uh, feasting.

And that’s why your city’s streets are filled with people on March 17 every year since.

The parade tradition didn’t truly start to take root outside of Ireland until the 1840s when the infamous potato famine in Ireland forced mass immigration to America and other parts of the world. Like any other immigration pattern, the tradition of St. Patrick’s Day took stronger root wherever Irish expatriates settled down across the globe.

 

Cultural Appropriation


St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City, 2016 (Getty Images)

Has St. Patrick’s Day lost its meaning in the commercialization culture of America? It’s a question Irish Americans have struggled with for decades.

That’s reflected in many books available from UNT Libraries. One book from UNT Libraries, The Irish In Us, tasked authors with the question of Irishness in American popular culture. Marie Fitzgerald’s The St. Patrick’s Day Parade: The Conflict of Irish-American Identity in New York City, 1840-1900 tackles the holiday and the arrival of Irish immigrants head-on. Stephanie Rains covered the assimilation of Irish culture in her 2007 book as well. Recently, the LGBTQ movement won their battle to march in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade.  

So, yes: St. Patrick's Day is much more complicated and rich than you might think if you were raised around the holiday itself. The Irish certainly won't ask you to celebrate less on their most popular holiday, but hopefully, these facts and books from UNT Libraries' collection add a richer shade to the green all around you on March 17. 

And don't forget to check out our Monthly Book display, featuring books and media on Irish heritage, on the first floor of Willis Library all month.