The history of St Patrick, and how he came to be inextricably woven into Irish identity
Each year on 17th March, the patron saint of Ireland is celebrated across the country—and indeed, the UK and beyond—with parades, an abundance of green and the drinking of copious amounts of Guinness. Here we look at the history of this influential man and how he became inextricably woven into Irish identity
On Coney Island, off Streedagh Point in County Sligo, sits a magic stone ‘wishing’ chair—so magical that you’re only allowed to sit on it once a year. The chair, it is said, was created by St Patrick: a small part of the rich mythology inspired by the patron saint of Ireland.
The one thing that everyone associates with St Patrick, besides the mass consumption of Guinness on 17th March, is his apparent success in ridding Ireland of snakes. In the 19th century, when interest in ancient fossils was at its height, locals in the county of Donegal believed the fossilised remains of coral found on the coast to be the remains of snakes that had died while fleeing St Patrick, who chased them into the sea after they interrupted his 40-day fast on top of a hill.
In truth, post-glacial Ireland never had any snakes. Water has surrounded the island since the end of the last glacial period, preventing snakes from slithering over. Before that, it was blanketed in glaciers; too chilly for such cold-blooded creatures.
According to some scholars, the true meaning of the snake myth runs much deeper, providing an allegory for St Patrick’s eradication of pagan ideology. The snake was the symbol of the Celts and their priest-caste, the Druids. When St Patrick arrived, the only snakes that his church wished to cast away were the native pagan Celts.
Kidnapped and enslaved
Patrick was born somewhere on the coast of Britain in the 4th century AD, into a family of priests. According to Patrick’s Declaration, an autobiographical tract attributed to the saint, he was kidnapped and enslaved by Irish raiders: “I was taken prisoner. I was about 16 at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. We deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments.”
Patrick spent six years working as a shepherd, during which time he “came to wisdom and could distinguish between good and evil”. According to the Declaration, God told Patrick to flee to the coast, where a ship would be waiting to take him home.
After arriving back in Britain, Patrick dedicated himself to becoming a priest before returning to Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity, drawn there by “the voice of the Irish people”. He spent many years preaching in the northern half of Ireland and converted “thousands”. According to a later source, he died on 17th March 492 at the ripe old age of 120 and was buried at Downpatrick.
On 2nd February 1808, Bishop Daniel Delany formally declared Patrick the patron saint of Ireland. On his annual saint’s day, Chicago’s rivers and several million pints of Guinness are dyed green, although Patrick himself was probably more closely associated with blue: the colour of church vestments.
A high king
The rest of the symbolism associated with him is also pretty new. Patrick wore no bishop’s mitre, as they weren’t invented for another 500 years, and the idea of the shamrock being a symbol of the Trinity was tacked on a thousand years after his death. As far as we know, Patrick never climbed Crough Patrick nor met a high king at Tara.
One myth we can all get behind, though, is that of ‘pota Phadraig’: Patrick’s pot. St Patrick is said to have chastised an innkeeper who had served him a short measure of Irish whiskey. He told the mean publican that a devil lived in his cellar and could only be banished by acts of generosity. The measures became much larger after that.