St Patrick’s Day is celebrated across the world on 17th March each year: Patrick is famous for bringing Christianity to the famously Catholic island of Ireland, and remains one of their patron saints today. But who was the man behind the legend? Which parts are actually true? And how did St Patrick’s Day grow to be an international celebration?
1. He was actually born in Britain
Whilst St Patrick may be the patron site of Ireland, he was actually born in Britain, in the late 4th century AD. It’s believed his birth name was Maewyn Succat, and his family were Christians: his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest. By his own account, Patrick was not an active believer in Christianity as a child.
2. He arrived in Ireland as a slave
Aged 16, Patrick was seized from his family’s home by a group of Irish pirates, who took him to Ireland where the teenage Patrick was enslaved for six years. He worked as a shepherd for some of this period.
According to his own writing in the Confession of St Patrick, it was this period in his life where Patrick really discovered his faith, and his belief in God. He spent hours praying and eventually converted fully to Christianity.
After six years of captivity, Patrick heard a voice telling him his ship was ready to take him home: he travelled 200 miles to the nearest port, and managed to persuade a captain to let him stow away onboard his ship.
3. He travelled across Europe, studying Christianity
Patrick’s studies of Christianity took him to France – he spent much of his time at Auxerre, but also visited Tours and the abbey at Lérins. His studies are thought to have taken him about 15 years to complete. Once he was ordained, he returned to Ireland, adopting the name Patrick (derived from the Latin word Patricius, meaning father figure).
4. He didn’t just return to Ireland as a missionary
Patrick’s mission in Ireland was twofold. He was to minister to the Christians who already existed in Ireland, as well as to convert the Irish who were not yet believers. Cleverly, Patrick used traditional rituals to bridge the gap between widely held pagan beliefs and Christianity, such as using bonfires to celebrate Easter, and creating the Celtic cross, which incorporated pagan symbols, to make it seem more appealing to venerate.
He also performed baptisms and confirmations, converting the sons of kings and wealthy women – several of whom became nuns. He is widely believed to have become the first bishop of Armagh later in his life.
5. He probably didn’t banish snakes from Ireland
Popular legend – dating back to the 7th century AD, would have it that St Patrick drove the snakes in Ireland into the sea after they began attacking him during a period of fast. However, in all likelihood, Ireland probably never had snakes in the first place: it would have been too cold. Indeed, the only reptile found in Ireland is the common lizard.
6. Although he might have first popularised the shamrock
As part of his teachings, Patrick is supposed to have used the shamrock as a way of explaining the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Christian belief of three persons in one God. Whether or not there is truth to this remains unclear, but the shamrock was also supposed to have symbolised the regenerative power of nature.
St Patrick has been associated with the shamrock more concretely since the 18th century, when the story first appeared in writing and people began to pin shamrocks on their clothes to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.
7. He was first venerated as a saint in the 7th century
Although he was never formally canonised (he lived before the current laws of the Catholic Church with regards to this), he has been venerated as a saint, the ‘Apostle of Ireland’, since the 7th century.
However, his feast day – in this case, the day of his death – was only added to the Catholic breviary in the 1630s.
8. He was traditionally associated with the colour blue
Whilst today we associate St Patrick – and Ireland – with the colour green, he was originally depicted wearing blue robes. The particular shade (known today as azure blue) was originally named St Patrick’s blue. Technically today, this shade remains Ireland’s official heraldic colour.
The association with green came as a form of rebellion: as discontent with English rule grew, it was seen as a sign of dissent and rebellion to wear a green shamrock rather than the ordained blue.
9. St Patrick’s Day parades began in America, not Ireland
As the number of Irish emigrants in America grew, St Patrick’s Day also became an important event to connect with them home. The first definite St Patrick’s Day parade dates back to 1737, in Boston, Massachusetts, although new evidence suggests there may have been a St Patrick’s Day parade as early as 1601 in Spanish Florida.
The large-scale modern day parades that occur today have their roots in a 1762 celebration in New York. A growing Irish diaspora – particularly after the Famine – meant St Patrick’s Day became a source of pride and a way to reconnect with Irish heritage.
10. No one knows exactly where he was buried
Several sites fight for the right to call themselves St Patrick’s burial place, but the short answer is no one knows exactly where he is buried. Down Cathedral is the most widely accepted location – alongside Ireland’s other saints, Brigid and Columba – although there’s no hard evidence.
Other possible spots include Glastonbury Abbey in England, or Saul, also in County Down.