This Day in History: March 17th- From Slave to Saint, The Story of Patrick

This Day In History: March 17, 461

saint-patrickAfter St. Patrick’s death on March 17, 461, his story was largely forgotten. It took centuries for him to attain mythological status, and even at that, the St. Patrick that is revered today bears little resemblance to the man who actually existed.

To begin with, St. Patrick wasn’t Irish. He was born as Maewyn Succat in England to well-off British-Roman parents. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and enslaved by a Druid priest. While working as a herder for his master, Patrick found himself turning more and more to the Christian faith for comfort.

In his early 20s, he managed to escape his captors and returned to England. He soon entered the priesthood in France and took the name Patrick. He felt it was his calling to convert the Irish people to Christianity, and with the Pope’s blessing Patrick returned to the land of his enslavement to bring the Gospel to Ireland.

He wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms, getting the stuffing beat out of him on a regular basis by uncooperative Pagans, but they finally succumbed. Legend has it Patrick sometimes baptized thousands of Irish in a single day, which would be quite a feat considering there are only 1,440 minutes in a day. Quick dunking and no sleep or breaks I guess… He traveled the land tirelessly preaching and helping to found new churches. All total he is generally credited with creating 350 new Catholic bishops, and by the time of his death almost all of Ireland had been converted to Christianity.

Patrick died on March 17, 461 (some accounts say he was over 120 years old – one of many factoids surrounding the man that is highly doubtful) in Saul. He is buried in Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, Ireland. But instead of his demise being the end of the story – for Patrick in many ways it was only the beginning. Legends accepted as fact about him began to proliferate as the years wore on.

One of these well-loved stories asserted that St. Patrick drove all snakes from Ireland, and it’s certainly true that none exist there. However, it’s also true that Ireland is an island surrounded by icy, unwelcoming waters, making it impossible for snakes to naturally migrate from neighboring areas. In this case, the “snake” in the story was more likely being used as a metaphor for Paganism.

Another oft-told tale is how St. Patrick would explain the concept of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Ghost), by using a clover as a visual learning tool. It’s agreed by most historians that this is a story concocted by monks hundreds of years after he died.

St. Patrick’s next manifestation was patron saint of the party animal (apparently)… However, in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was generally celebrated quietly, with a big dinner and an acknowledgement of the saint by a priest. That was pretty much it. The St. Patrick’s Day celebration of high-spirited reveling is an Irish-American invention.

Even from the time of the American Revolution, Irish-Americans were looking for a way to connect with their heritage. At first there were banquets in cities like Boston and Charlestown, and in later years parades also became popular in areas with large Irish immigrant populations.

The wearing of the green, another tradition mainly popular in the U.S., is an outward show of one’s commitment and ancestral ties to Ireland. Originally, the color commonly associated with Patrick himself was blue.  This began to change all the way back as far as the 17th century when shamrocks and green ribbons started to be worn at Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations. In America, St. Patrick’s Day has become became as much about celebrating one’s Irish roots and bonding with others of Irish descent as honoring the saint. And yes, even for the non-Irish, pounding the table to “The Wild Rover” after a pint or four. (For instance, around 1.6 million gallons of Guinness is consumed on St. Patrick’s Day.  This is a bit over double the amount on any other given day of the year.)

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Bonus Saint Patrick’s Day Facts:

  • The tradition of dyeing the water green in Chicago started in 1962.  The idea was hit upon by the business manager for the Chicago Journeyman Plumbers Local Union #110, Stephen Bailey (who was also one of the organizers of the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago at the time).  In 1961, a plumber came to meet Bailey wearing white coveralls that had bright green stains all over them.  Bailey asked how the stains got there and the plumber said that he’d been trying to trace some pollution leakages and was dumping the dye down drains at various points to figure out which line was leaking into the Chicago River so it could be disconnected.  Bailey then got the idea that they could use this dye to turn the whole river green on Saint Patrick’s Day.  He asked around and the consensus was that it could be done.  The following Saint Patrick’s Day, they dumped 100 lbs of the dye into the river.  Surprisingly, it turns out this was a bit of an overkill as the river stayed green for a full week.  The next year, they reduced it to 50 lbs, which was still too much, keeping the river green for three days this time.  In 1964, they went with a mere 25 lbs, which turned out to be the perfect amount to use to keep the river green for roughly 1 day.
  • They later had to switch dyes due to environmentalists claiming the original dye was significantly polluting the river due to being oil based.  This was thought to be unlikely given it was non-toxic and with only 25 lbs of it dispersed in such a large body of water, the concentration was extremely low.  Nevertheless, they switched it up and came up with a new vegetable based dye that if they used about 40 pounds of it, could keep the river green for about 5 hours.
  • The dye poured into the Chicago River on Saint Patrick’s Day actually appears orange before it gets mixed into the river, turning it a nice bright green color.
  • While Saint Patrick’s Day is usually celebrated on March 17, the day it is thought that Patrick died, every now and then this gets changed, in terms of the religious observance of the day.  For instance, in 1940 and 2008 March 17 was conflicting with other Catholic events, such as Palm Sunday in 1940.  As a result of this, in 1940 Saint Patrick’s Day was moved to April 3rd; in 2008 it was moved to March 14.  During these times, the secular celebration of the holiday is still celebrated on March 17th.
  • Some of the stories and traditions associated with Saint Patrick are actually probably from another man that preceded Patrick by a 1-3 decades (exactly how much isn’t known), Palladius.  It has also been argued by some scholars that the blending of these two’s accomplishments was done purposefully to bolster the prestige of Saint Patrick.  Palladius was one of the earliest missionaries to Ireland, ordained by Pope Celestine the first as the “First Bishop to the Irish believing in Christ”.  However, accounts seem to indicate the Palladius and his companions’ mission was fairly unsuccessful and Palladius himself was eventually banished by the King of Leinster, at which point he went to Northern Britain to preach to the Scots. Nevertheless, much of what Palladius did accomplish while in Ireland has long since been credited to Saint Patrick instead and it’s difficult to tell in most cases exactly which of them accomplished what.
  • King George III in 1783 created a “Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick”, which is an order of knights of Saint Patrick given to certain people associated with Ireland who the monarchy wishes to honor.  It’s been about eight decades since the last person was inducted into this order and the last person in the order died in 1974, Prince Henry the Duke of Gloucester.   Nevertheless, the order still technically exists with the Queen functioning as the Sovereign.
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  • Patrick’s mass conversions came from converting local kings and chieftains who then forced their followers to convert. Not such a pretty picture, is it?

    • I’m sure that you know this because you were there to witness it? I think that you (or someone whose rubbish you read) just hate Christianity so much that the claims you make (or relay) are mere fictions. You ought to be smart enough to realize that vast numbers of people have, in every age, become genuine converts to Christianity after being moved by hearing the Gospel proclaimed — and accepting the gift of faith offered to them by God. Huge numbers (millions) of unforced conversions to Christianity have been happpening during your lifetime in several countries of Africa and in some countries of Asia. Please don’t be foolish enough to believe liars or ignoramuses who try to make you think that most conversions to Christianity have been forced, throughout history. (I think that we all know which OTHER religion has always engaged in forced conversions, including nowadays.)

      • And you’d think that tens or hundreds of thousands of people would just up and change their historical religion because some guy walked into town and said they’d be blessed?

        • Richard L. Schaefer

          Note the many people in the Roman Empire who converted to Christianity.

          One study showed that the story about signs in the US saying “Irish need not apply” is a false story.

  • Thanks for all that you do! There’s a minor typo:
    ” . . . Chicago River so it could be disconnect it.”

    • Daven Hiskey

      @kingpin: You’re welcome, and thanks for catching the typo and letting us know. 🙂

  • “The tradition of dying the water green in Chicago started in 1962.”

    The word is “dyeing,” not “dying.”
    The fact that this error got published is very troubling.
    The fact that it remained uncorrected for almost a year is astonishing.

  • Quoting from the article:
    “He was born as Maewyn Succat in England …”

    The reference to “England” should not have been unconditional. Historians are not sure in which of three modern “countries” of Great Britain (England, Scotland, or Wales) Maewyn was born. Although England is a possibility, it seems the least likely of the three, since (1) travel across the Irish Sea was not simple, (2) southern Ireland is closest to Wales, and (3) northern Ireland is closest to Scotland.

    Quoting again:
    “At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and enslaved by a Druid priest. While working as a herder for his master, Patrick found himself turning more and more to the Christian faith for comfort.”

    If he was enslaved by a pagan in a pagan land (where Christian missionaries did not exist), how did Maewyn come to “turn … to the Christian faith”? This should have been explained by the author, but was not. Some historians believe that he had been raised in a Catholic home (these events occurring after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire), but had not yet become a fervent Christian when he was captured by the Irish.

    Quoting a final time:
    “[Maewyn] returned to England. He soon entered the priesthood in France and took the name Patrick.”

    Although one may “enter” a university to study or “enter” a secular profession, one does not “enter the priesthood” in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Instead, one is permitted to study in a seminary by the local bishop; then, if judged able, one is “called” and “ordained” to the priesthood by that bishop or another.

  • It’s nice that they dye the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s day, but here on the Hudson River in New York, the water is green every single day of the year!

    This is totally in celebration of Irish heritage, and has nothing to do with high levels of pollution and invasive species of algae in the water.