St Patrick: What do we know about the man behind the day?

On March 17 we Irish celebrate the deeds of St Patrick, but just how much do we actually know about the man behind the day, asks Kevin O’Brien?

This year, once again, Saint Patrick’s Day will be celebrated all over the world.

Government ministers will fly to far flung corners of the globe to give a bowl of the old trifolium dubium to global dignitaries.

Parades up and down the country will have children dressed as bishops chasing others dressed as snakes along the streets.

All in homage to a man who may never have seen a snake in his life, or even knew what trifolium dubium was (shamrock if you haven’t guessed it).

The St. Patrick’s Day we know today possibly originated in Boston sometime in 1760’s. Irish immigrants celebrated what had hitherto been a religious feast day observed in quiet solemnity.

With a yearning for home, these immigrants started organising parades and parties as a show of pride of their Irishness.

This tradition still exists today, albeit with a very simple idea of what Irishness is, and has even made its way to the Emerald Isle.

Nowadays, the sombre celebration of the feast day of our patron saint that existed centuries ago has been transformed into a drunken free-for-all in pubs across the land, where The Pogues or Dropkick Murphy’s might be belted out by a DJ in a funny green wig.

But how are emblems of March 17, such as, Dropkick Murphy’s, snakes, parades and shamrocks, related to Patrick, a man born in Wales who arrived in Ireland in the year 432AD. The quick answer; they’re not.

We know very little facts about Patrick and based on what we have learned from the valid sources of historical evidence, he didn’t even have any particular preference for the colour green.

All these myths that surround Patrick have been attached to him over the centuries and became so traditional that nobody cares to doubt them.

In America, we see this mythmaking process happening in real-time. Many have begun erroneously referring to our national celebration as ‘Patty’s Day’, in a move that may cause tension in the usually cordial Irish-US relations. Hopefully, the ‘Patty’ craze fades out.

Thankfully, we have two recorded accounts of Patrick’s life, written by Patrick himself, which actually tell us who he was and what he was like.

These are his Letter to Coroticus and his Confessio. Nowhere, is there any mention in these documents of the shamrock or of a snake.

But, crudely, there are connotations to the latter when Patrick admits to a sin he committed, in the space of an hour, when he was a 15 year-old adolescent.

The nature of his sin is not described in detail, but a little bit of guess work might at least give us a sense that Patrick was only human, with human needs.

Elsewhere in these two documents, there is little room for doubt that Patrick was earnest in his endeavours to convert us Godless Irish to Christianity.

Having been taking captive and forced into slavery in Ireland, he finds God and later escapes, only to return to save the souls of the pagan natives.

He tells us that on his return, he lived among barbarians as a stranger in exile. This was a time when living in a community was tantamount to survival.

Patrick must have lived a hard life trying to survive on his own outside the borders of the civilised and Christian world of the Romans.

Looking at what he wrote, it’s important to remember these two texts were written as open letters, with Patrick intending for them to be read by as many people as possible. With this in mind, his vanity may have overcome him at times as he wrote.

Especially when he repeatedly mentions how God has spoken to him and chosen him for the mission to convert the Irish.

He also quotes the Bible again and again, showing us his vast knowledge in what seems to be an obvious exercise in self-promotion.

Also, in the Confessio, he doesn’t mention any other person even once. To label Patrick self-centred may be unfair, but the Confessio is all about himself.

And like most people who love promoting themselves, there comes a time when they also have to defend their character.

Patrick finds the need to deny claims that he ever accepted gifts at his altar, adding that he has even offended people by refusing their offerings. Our saint seems to be protecting himself against accusations that he seeks wealth from his mission.

So, while you try to enjoy our national day this year, surrounded by the trappings of paddywhackery and the myths that surround a mere mortal Welshman, just remind yourself of Alan Partridge’s idea for a slogan to help the Irish tourist board change the image of Ireland as a land of “leprechauns”, “toothless simpletons” and “people with eyebrows on their cheeks”…

“Dere’s more to Oirland dan dis”.

Kevin O'Brien is a student in Cork Institute of Technology, currently studying for an MA in Journalism with New Media.

Read Next: Video: Why do we give shamrocks to the White House?

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