For Catholics, Episcopalians and some Lutherans, March 17 is the Feast Day of St. Patrick. For the rest of us, it’s St. Patrick’s Day — a midweek excuse to party until we’re green in the face. But who was Patrick? Did he really drive the snakes out of Ireland or use the shamrock to explain the Trinity? Why should this fifth-century priest be remembered on this day?
Q: Was St. Patrick a real guy, and would he approve of green beer?
A: Yes, Patrick was a real person, but not much is known of his life. He was born in the late 300s when the Roman Empire extended to England, so he was not “really” Irish — like the vast majority of people who celebrate his day. In his “Confessio,” one of only two surviving documents attributed to him, Patrick wrote that while his father was a Christian deacon, he was not devout. At age 16, Patrick was captured by Irish marauders, carried across the Irish Sea and enslaved. Patrick spent six years alone in the wilderness tending his master’s sheep, praying constantly. “It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was,” he wrote. He began to have visions and hear voices that told him: “Look, your ship is ready.” So Patrick left his first flock and walked 200 miles to the coast. It’s a pretty safe bet he would have loved a beer, green or otherwise, as he stepped into a boat bound for England.
I love St. Patrick’s Day.
The one day of the year when, for better or worse, Western culture allows me to claim my non-existent inner Irishman.
Kiss me, baby.
Okay. I’m done.
There are many stories and legends about the fascinating life of St. Patrick. One of the most famous legends recounts how this great 5th century saint banished all of the snakes from Ireland. Bad snakes. Bad.
My work at the Raven Foundation during the last few years has taught me to be suspicious of such legends. In fact, we might call them myths. Myths cover up scapegoating of human beings by telling the story in a more innocuous way. So, instead of saying we banish humans, we say we banished snakes.
Interestingly, the last glacial period (some 10,000-100,000 years ago, depending on whom you ask) beat St. Patrick to the snake banishing. But, Christian tradition has given Patrick all the credit. So, if there weren’t snakes around during Patrick’s day, what’s with the legend?