11 Things You Might Not Know About St. Patrick

Crosses, bells, boars, snakes, druids … because everybody’s Irish today


St. Patricks, from left: Statue in Agahower, Andreas F. Borchert/CC BY-SA 3.0 de | Stained glass window from Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CASicarr/CC BY 2.0 | With shamrock in stained glass window in St. Benin’s Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland, Andreas F. Borchert/CC BY-SA 3.0 de  | Statue near Saul, Albert Bridge/CC BY-SA 2.0

“Since when,” my enraged friend demanded, “did St. Patrick‘s Day become a two-week holiday?” She was irate that her exit off of I-676, not to mention any number of her neighborhood’s streets, had been closed last weekend for the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. The Erin Express bused honorary Irish revelers through town for two consecutive weekends, and It’s Always Sunny got its Irish on way back in February. In case you haven’t caught on, this city is St. Patrick-crazy, which really isn’t surprising, considering that Philly has the second-largest Irish population by percentage of the nation’s major cities, as well as the many contributions emigrés from the Old Sod have made here. So long as you’re using a fourth-century British saint as an excuse to go drinking — again — you might as well know who you’re drinking to. (That’s his church, by the way, just off Rittenhouse Square.)

1. Nobody is sure exactly when the man celebrated as the patron saint of Ireland was born, but it’s believed he was a missionary there in the latter half of the fifth century CE. According to his first-person Confessio, he was 16 and living in Great Britain when he was captured by pirates. They carried him off to Ireland, where he became a slave and tended sheep until he escaped after six years.

2. In his writings, he refers to himself as “Patricius,” but his birth name was Sucat. He was given the name Patricius, according to one account, by Pope Celestine I “as a foreshadowing of the fruitfulness and merit of his apostolate whereby he became pater civium” — the father of his people. The name — the Irish form is Pádraic — wasn’t often used in that country prior to the 1600s because it was considered too sacred. It peaked in usage in the U.S. in the late 1960s.

3. After running away from his masters, Patrick persuaded a ship’s captain to take him aboard. The ship’s company debarked in Britain and was lost in the wilderness for 28 days. Shortly after Patrick advised his mates to put their faith in God, the starving men came across a herd of wild boar. The sailors were impressed.

4. Patrick returned to his family, traveled and studied in Europe, and was ordained a priest, but began to have visions of Irish children calling to him: “O holy youth, come back to Erin, and walk once more amongst us.” So he did, after Pope Celestine I, on the recommendation of St. Germain of Auxerre, charged him with bringing the Irish into Christendom’s fold.

5. When he arrived back in Ireland, Patrick was promptly attacked by druids, one of whom, Lochra, had previously prophesied about him:

Across the sea will come Adze-head, crazed in the head,
his cloak with hole for the head, his stick bent in the head.
He will chant impieties from a table in the front of his house;
all his people will answer: “so be it, so be it.”

An adze is a flint-edged cutting tool; the reference is assumed to be to Patrick’s tonsure. Lochra later warned the king of Ireland against Patrick and was promptly raised up into the air, then killed when he fell onto a stone.

6. Legend has it that St. Patrick used the shamrock (Gaelic sheamrog, meaning “summer plant”) to help the Irish understand the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. But he never mentions the plant in his writings. The first written connection between saint and shamrock came more than a thousand years after his death.

7. Legend also holds that Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland by chasing them into the sea. But there’s no evidence there ever were any snakes in Ireland, just as there are none in on the islands of New Zealand, Iceland and Greenland. In fact, the only reptile native to Ireland is the common lizard.

8. The National Museum of Ireland contains an eighth- or ninth-century iron bell, six inches tall and coated in bronze, that is supposed to have belonged to St. Patrick. It’s encased in a bronze shrine decorated with Celtic beasts, snakes, birds and crosses. The bronze coating was to protect human eyes, since the bell was considered too holy to look at.

9. St. Patrick is associated with three types of crosses: the cross pattée (“footed cross”; in the crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the Koh-i-noor diamond is set in a cross pattée); St. Patrick’s Saltire, a red saltire on a white field that was adopted in the 1780s as the symbol of the Most Illustrious Order of St. Patrick; and the Celtic Cross, which legend says he created by merging the Christian cross with a pagan sun cross. In the 1600s and 1700s, it was common for people to wear badges displaying these crosses on his feast day, March 17th, the date of his death.

10. St. Patrick’s Day was a minor holiday until the 1970s, when it was “basically invented in America by Irish-Americans,” according to National Geographic. Consumption of Guinness doubles worldwide on the occasion, parades are held, and the city of Chicago dyes the Chicago River green. (Time-lapse photo here.)

11. St. Patrick was never formally canonized by a pope, but that wasn’t unusual for his time, when the title was bestowed locally and posthumously on men and women considered to have been exceptionally holy. A more formal process for conferring sainthood was begun by Pope Urban VIII in 1624 and has evolved since then.

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