I do love a great Irish celebration: the blaring sound of the bagpipes, the flowing (green) beer, the wearing of the green. As a woman who’s quarter Irish (the rest Scandinavian and English) I might as well be 100% Gaelic on St. Patrick’s Day. However, once I had children and we celebrated the holiday together, I felt compelled to look deeper into the history of St. Patrick. I was surprised to find the man behind the myth was far more interesting and inspiring than any Irish dance.
Who was St. Patrick?
During captivity, Patrick supposedly found the faith of his childhood a comfort. Upon his release, he converted to Christianity and went back to Ireland to convert people to Christianity. History deems he was successful; the idea that he drove all the snakes from Ireland is usually viewed as a metaphor that he drove paganism out of Ireland (there weren’t any snakes in Ireland, apparently).
“Intimately familiar with the Irish clan system (his former master, Milchu, had been a chieftain), Patrick's strategy was to convert chiefs first, who would then convert their clans through their influence. Reportedly, Milchu was one of his earliest converts.” Patrick did not represent Rome officially, nor was he never officially canonized by Rome, which means he’s not a saint with a capital “S” — yet somehow that has stuck. As the story goes, St. Patrick used the three-leaf Irish clover to demonstrate the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and so people starting wearing them — and later green — to show their Irish-Christian pride.
Honoring St. Patrick’s Day today
Well after St. Patrick died in the 5th century, the Church established a Feast Day on March 17, 1631 honoring him — some 12 centuries later. The tradition of honoring St. Patrick’s Day with parades actually started in America after the Irish came here in droves following the Irish potato famine. The first one took place in America in 1762 in New York. In 1798, the year of the Irish Rebellion, green became officially associated with the day, Marion Casey says. New York still has the largest parade, with over 200,000 participants and three million spectators.
The city of Chicago, of course, famously dyes the Chicago River green (that tradition too had nothing to do at first with St. Patrick’s Day, but with trying to figure out which buildings along the river were dumping waste illegally into the water). The tradition of drinking green beer developed in the late 20th century, when Ireland “repealed a law that initially kept everything —pubs included — shut down for the day.”
Passing on history — and our heritage
In my early teens I discovered I had about a quarter of Irish ancestry (don’t hold it against me). Though the rest was a mix of English, Swedish and Norwegian, I became fascinated with all things Gaelic. From then on I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with vigor, always receiving cards and gifts from my parents and friends, wearing green, listening to bagpipes, and just chanting “Erin Go Bragh!” whenever I could.
When I had kids, my priorities shifted; however, I still enjoyed celebrating our Gaelic roots with them (my husband is a quarter Scottish). In fact, one of our children is named Muirin, “mermaid” aka the name of William Wallace’s wife — and another is named Keira. At first we’d just go to a parade, make shamrock-shaped cookies, eat corned beef and cabbage (an Irish-American tradition) and, okay, drink Shamrock shakes (corny, I know). As they got older, I started to show them short videos and read stories about who St. Patrick really was, and what he did that was so important — sharing the hope and love of Jesus with the Irish people. They began to see the holiday had roots that mattered more than any parade or Irish festival. The combination — part celebratory, part history lesson: all Gaelic appreciation — has become a real joy to my children and me and hopefully has emboldened their faith.
There’s a Gaelic phrase, “An nì chì na big, 's e nì na big”: “What the little ones see, the little ones do.” I hope during times like these, passing on a love of our Gaelic heritage and the importance of Christian faith will prove to plant seeds in their minds about where they came from and what’s important — even as they enjoy the traditional celebration.
Sona Lá St Pádraig!
Nicole Russell is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Federalist, The American Spectator, Reason, National Review Online, and Parents magazine. She was the 2010 recipient of the American Spectator’s Young Journalist award. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and four children.