A touch of the Irish! History, Myth and Lore!

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Who Was the Man Behind St. Patrick’s Day?

From National Geographic

Bundled up or skimpily clad, few of the revelers lining parade routes and filling Irish pubs have a clue about St. Patrick, the historical figure, according to the author of St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography.

“The modern celebration of St. Patrick’s Day really has almost nothing to do with the real man,” classics professor Philip Freeman, of Luther College in Iowa, said in 2009. (Take an Ireland quiz.)

For starters, the real St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish. He was born in Britainaround A.D. 390 to an aristocratic Christian family that owned a townhouse, a country villa, and plenty of slaves.

What’s more, Patrick professed no interest in Christianity as a young boy, Freeman noted.

At 16, Patrick’s world was turned upside down: He was kidnapped and sent overseas to tend sheep as a slave for seven years in the chilly, mountainous countryside of Ireland. (See Ireland pictures.)

“It was just horrible for him,” Freeman said. “But he got a religious conversion while he was there and became a very deeply believing Christian.”

St. Patrick’s Disembodied Voices

According to folklore, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family.

The voice then told him to go back to Ireland.

“He gets ordained as a priest from a bishop, and goes back and spends the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity,” Freeman said.

Patrick’s work in Ireland was tough—he was constantly being beaten by thugs, harassed by Irish royalty, and admonished by his British superiors. After he died on March 17, 461, Patrick was largely forgotten.

But slowly, mythology grew around Patrick, and centuries later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland, Freeman noted. (Related: “St. Patrick’s Day Fast Facts: Beyond the Blarney.”)

Is Your Shamrock Real or Bogus?

According to St. Patrick’s Day lore, Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the Christian holy trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Today, St. Patrick’s Day revelers wear a shamrock. Trifolium dubium, the wild-growing, three-leaf clover that some botanists consider the official shamrock, is an annual plant that germinates in the spring.

Other three-leaf clovers, such as the perennials Trifolium repens andMedicago lupulina, are “bogus shamrocks,” according to the Irish Times.

John Parnell, a botanist at Trinity College in Dublin, said in 2010 thatTrifolium dubium is the most commonly used shamrock today, which lends credence to the claims of authenticity.

However, he added, the custom of wearing a shamrock dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and “I know of no evidence to say what people then used. I think the argument on authenticity is purely academic—basically I’d guess they used anything cloverlike then.”

What’s more, botanists say there’s nothing uniquely Irish about shamrocks. Most clover species can be found throughout Europe.

No Snakes in Ireland

Another St. Patrick myth is the claim that he banished snakes from Ireland. It’s true no snakes exist on the island today, Luther College’s Freeman said—but they never did.

Ireland, after all, is surrounded by icy waters—much too cold to allow snakes to migrate from Britain or anywhere else.

Since snakes often represent evil in literature, “when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland [and] brought in a new age,” Freeman said.

The snake myth, the shamrock story, and other tales were likely spread by well-meaning monks centuries after St. Patrick’s death, Freeman said.

St. Patrick’s Day: Made in America?

Until the 1970s, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was a minor religious holiday. A priest would acknowledge the feast day, and families would celebrate with a big meal, but that was about it.

“St. Patrick’s Day was basically invented in America by Irish-Americans,” Freeman said.

Timothy Meagher, an expert in Irish-American history at Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University, said in 2009 Irish charitable organizations originally celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with banquets in places such as Boston, Savannah, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Eighteenth-century Irish soldiers fighting with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War held the first St. Patrick’s Day parades. Some soldiers, for example, marched through New York City in 1762 to reconnect with their Irish roots.

Other parades followed in the years and decades after, including well-known celebrations in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, primarily in flourishing Irish immigrant communities.

“It becomes a way to honor the saint but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity,” said Meagher.

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