It has become somewhat customary for Christians to celebrate the death of their Saints with a feast or a day of celebrations to remember and reflect upon their sacrifices, accomplishments and deeds. Although St. Patrick was never officially beatified or canonized by the Roman Catholic, Anglican or Protestant churches, he is widely accepted as one and is commonly referred to as the Patron Saint of Ireland. Christians around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day every year on March 17, a practice which was actually first officially recorded in New York in 1972 (although there are possible records of the celebration being held the ninth century in Ireland).
Early Life of Maewyn Succat
Born Maewyn Succat in the small village of Bannavem Taberniae, an ancient hamlet believed by historians to be located in the Severn estuary in Southern Wales, his birthdate is another aspect of his life that has sunk into the murky depths of history. Scholars speculate that he was born somewhere between 386-389AD. His death is also a subject of debate, but the two most widely accepted years are 461AD and 493AD in Sabhall, although one thing that people generally agree on is the date, which is 17 March.
Much of his life has an element of myth and folklore intertwined in them, making him a larger than life figure. However, his story began in Bannavem Taberniae. As revealed later in the Confessio, the book he wrote in the twilight of his life, his father, Pontius, was a deacon, following in the footsteps of his own father, Calpornius, who was a priest. They appeared to be of Roman-Brittany stock, and were devout Christians. But the young Succat did not appear to be interested to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, and spent his childhood days in a carefree and irreverent manner.
All that came to an end as he approached the throes of adulthood. Pressures from warring nations on its borders forced the Romans to recall the bulk of their forces from Britain, which left their settlements there lightly guarded. The Irish, Saxons and Picts pirates that frequented the region immediately took notice and began launching raids after raids on settlements along the coastline. One raid in particular, by a band of not so merry Irishmen, landed straight in his village. The sixteen-year-old Succat was captured, thrown into a currough (currach) and brought to neighboring Ireland, where he was sold as a slave to the Chieftain of Foclut (modern-day Mayo). There, he was ordered to tend the farm stock of the village chief, Milchu. Life was hard in the warring land, where food was scarce, and raids on livestock were a regular affair.
Nevertheless, Milchu was impressed with young Maewyn and soon entrusted him with his pigs and sheep. Maewyn would wander out alone from dawn to dusk every day, and spent his days in silent contemplation until Milchu no longer felt compelled to send people to keep a watch on him. He lived the life of a sheepherder for six years, and grew into a solemn and thoughtful man in the process.
He later recounted in Confessio, “I prayed frequently during the day, and the love of God, and His faith and fear, increased in me more and more, and the spirit was stirred; so that in a single day I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same; so that I remained in the woods, and on the mountain, even before the dawn, I was roused to prayer, in snow, and ice, and rain, and I felt no injury from it, nor was there any slothfulness in me, as I see now, because the spirit was then fervent in me”.
Before long, however, Maewyn started to have vision-dreams, which told him to escape his captivity and board a ship waiting to take him away at the harbor. He packed what little belongings he had, and promptly started his long voyage home. He walked for 200 miles before reaching the Irish shores, and from there, boarded a ship to cross the Irish Sea before finally arriving home to Bannavem Taberniae.
Maewyn Succat and His European Adventure
He assumed that things would return to normal thereafter. However, the vision-dreams soon reappeared, and his nights were haunted with the cries of the unborn, pleading to him to return to Ireland and offer salvation to the people of the land. In another dream, an angel reminded him of his greater duty and advised him to aid the pagan Irish folk to find the road to salvation. He woke up, and immediately understood his calling in life. But realizing his lack of education and religious training, he left Bannavem Taberniae to seek formal instructions.
He left his village and reportedly became the disciple of St Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre in Gaul (France). He was reported to have spent some time in the Abbey of Lerins where he received the tonsure. He was baptized again by the Bishop, and renamed as Patrick. He spent a total of two decades in the continent serving, traveling and educating himself, while developing a wide range of skill sets in preparation of the daunting task that he has set for himself – of converting the pagan folk of Ireland into Christianity. Patrick was eventually ordained as a Bishop by the Holy Pope, Celestine the First, and tasked him with the responsibility that he had always wanted; to preach about Christianity to the people of Ireland.
Maewyn Succat Returns to Ireland
The day arrived, and Patrick traveled to Ireland on a ship and disembarked somewhere along the River Boyne in 432AD. Patrick journeyed through the wilderness steadfastly, despite rumors of marauding bandits and fiercely territorial locals. He met a band of villagers led by the Druid Dichu. Seeing the defenseless priest and upon learning of his intentions, Dichu drew his sword, intent on slaying Patrick. But as he raised his sword, he was struck with paralysis, and promptly dropped his sword and fell to the ground. Under the ministrations of Patrick, Dichu was healed.
Realizing that Patrick was no ordinary man, Dichu embraced the God of Patrick, and as a measure of his new found faith, he bequeaths Patrick his first church in Ireland. Patrick baptized Dichu and his villagers in that very church, converting his first batch of Christians. After instructing them with a rudimentary understanding of Christianity, Patrick left them to seek more of the locals. He was afraid, he was petrified, as he wrote in Confessio, but his faith in the Lord gave him the strength.
“Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity, but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God Almighty who rules everywhere.”
Patrick’s next encounter was with the legendary Irish King, Lóegaire mac Néill, The High King of Tara. Patrick stumbled upon an annual gathering of nobilities, practitioners of magic and Druid priests of the land who were celebrating a pagan festival, which coincidentally fell on the Day of Easter. King Loegaire had decreed that no fire was ever to be lit in his presence, under the penalty of death. Patrick, however, lit the Pascal fire, unaided without any device or tool, drawing the amazement of the onlookers. King Loegaire, wary but yet unconvinced, challenged Patrick to a duel with his renowned magician, Lucameel, in an attempt to disprove the veracity of Patrick’s claims. But Lucameel inexplicable refused to meet the challenge and King Loegaire had to concede defeat. While he remained cautious over Patrick’s claims, he allowed Patrick the freedom to spread his message.
Armed with the clout of The High King, Patrick ventured far and wide across the breadth of the Emerald Isle in his attempt to spread the word of God to the predominantly pagan people of the land. His adventures became bedtime stories, sources of inspiration, and with the passage of time, they grew into legends. Some of the most popular were those about Patrick’s defeat of Keeronagh, the mother of demons, and the destruction of the temple of Cenn Crúaich, the chief idol of the pagans of Ireland at the time. Not forgetting, of course, the herculean act of singlehandedly driving off all the snakes from Ireland.
While all of the above should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt, there is no denying the success Patrick had with the people of the land. The Annals of The Four Masters recounted that by the time he ended his missionary activities in the island, after 29 or 61 years – depending on your preferred year of death – of struggle and hardship, he had managed to ordain seven hundred bishops and three thousand priests, established 600 churches and baptized over 120,000 men, women and children. Despite the efforts of earlier missionaries, most notably Rutilius Palladius, the evangelical conversion of the pagan Irish people as a whole is largely credited to Patrick.
There are some scholars however who postulate that the life of Palladius had somehow became assimilated into Patrick’s own. Palladius’ life had some striking similarities to Patrick’s. For instance, Palladius died in 461AD, which is one of the dates attributed to Patrick himself. Palladius was also believed to have attended the same St. Germanus of Auxerre that Patrick received his religious instructions from. And additionally, Palladius received his orders to go to Ireland from none other than the Pope Celestine himself, while his disembarkation point at Ireland was at Leinster of County Meath, located along the River Boyne where Patrick was reported to have arrived at. This would probably explain the apparent difficulty in pinpointing the birth and death of Patrick, and the claims that he lived to a ripe old age of 122, a figure highly unusual for people of the time, where mortality rates for males’ average less than half of that.
The body of Patrick is believed to have been buried in Downpatrick, or Dún Pádraig in Irish, literally meaning “Patrick’s fortress”, located in County Down in Northern Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Day Celebration
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17 every year in practically every corner of the globe. Although the date is widely attributed to the date of his death (which either fell on 461AD or 493AD), there is some evidence which suggest that the celebration was instead centered around the old lore of St. Patrick symbolically taking cold stone out of water, which signified the end of true winter and heralded a new planting season (the other end of the Irish harvest festival, the Lammas).
In any case, it wasn’t until the early 17th century before St. Patrick’s Day was included in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. It took another three centuries before it become an official public holiday in Ireland when the House of Commons passed the 1903 Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act in 1903, which was introduced by James O’Mara, the Irish Member of Parliament of South Kilkenny.
From its simple beginning of a communal gathering spiced with ale, corned beef and colcannon, St. Patrick’s Day has evolved into a massive global festival, featuring parades and parties.
The often told tale of how St. Patrick explained the concept of Holy Trinity to pagan chiefs using the shamrock leaf has elevated the leaf into one of the primary symbols of the festival. And somewhere along the way, the leaf’s green color has supplemented the blue as Ireland’s national color. The Blarney Stone, the Irish jig and the leprechauns with their pot of gold have also woven themselves into the rich tradition of St. Patrick’s Day. The city of Belfast would turn green during the day, which now seems to extend to days, if not the whole week itself.
The massive immigration of the Irish people has seen the festival spread into the four corners of globe, with major parades held in a number of cities in the United States, England, and Australia, plus many more smaller celebrations in the far-flung reaches of the world, including in cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. In fact, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City, held since 1762, is the largest one of its kind in the world. Speaking of the United States, with its huge share of citizens of Irish descent, over 1,000 parades are hosted there annually. But that actually seem trivial in comparison to the act of dyeing the San Antonio River green to celebrate the event every year!
And to think, all of this started with a dream…
Song of the day: Dropkick Murphys – I’m Shipping Up To Boston