It is a most interesting fact that the patron saint of Ireland was not Irish, and it may mean that there is some hope for the rest of us. He has, however, become synonymous with the Irish culture and heritage, mostly through his service across Ireland during his lifetime. He was born in the latter part of the 4th century AD, either in Scotland or Roman England. His real name seems to have been Maewyn Succat. He was the son of a Roman-British army officer, Calpurnius and, I assume, a woman, whose name has been lost to history. (I resent that actually.) Though Patricius was his Romanicized name, he was later known as Patrick. When he was 16, his village was attacked. He was captured and sold into slavery in Ireland where he worked as a shepherd. He escaped to Gaul (France) and returned to Ireland as a missionary where he is credited with converting the population to Catholicism.
St. Patrick is associated with many myths and legends. Where the truth begins and the mythology ends is a matter of contention and will always remain as such. The most famous legend is the one that claims he drove all the snakes out of Ireland and into the sea. Indeed, for whatever reason, there are no snakes in Ireland today. Some claim the snakes were symbols of paganism and others say, well, they claim they were just snakes. Other folklore includes the belief that Patrick raised people from the dead. Whether or not any of this is true, he died on March 17th AD 461, never came back from the dead himself, and this day has been commemorated as St. Patricks Day ever since.
Once primarily a Catholic holy day, this day has evolved into a celebration of Spring and joy for all peoples. Parades, the wearing o the green and an Irish feast are all customary fare on this special day. One traditional icon of the occasion is the shamrock. This comes from a tale that tells how Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity. He used it in his sermons to represent how the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit could all exist as separate elements of the same entity. His followers adopted the custom of wearing a shamrock on his feast day. Other icons such as the green color, the leprechaun, the pot of gold and the Blarney stone have all come to be associated with the celebration of this unique day as well.
Wearing green is strictly an American custom as the color is not popular in Ireland. It is associated with the old green flag and a time when Ireland was not free. Green, on the other hand, is also a color symbolizing hope, renewal and nature. So go figure?
Leprechauns are little old fairy men who are the shoemakers for all the fairies in Ireland. They usually stand about two feet tall (even if you are drinking green beer when you see one, their height never changes). Treasure hunters can often track down a leprechaun by the sound of his shoemakers hammer. The legend is that if you catch one (easier said than done) you can force him to tell you where he hides his pot of gold. Otherwise, on St. Patricks Day as well as all others, his lips are sealed. The Blarney Stone is set in the wall of the Blarney Castle tower in the Irish village of (you guessed it, Blarney. And no blarney here). Kissing the stone is supposed to bestow the gift of persuasive eloquence. The legend says that an old woman cast a spell on the stone to reward a king who had saved her from drowning. Its not easy to kiss the stone; one must lie on ones back and bend backward, holding onto iron bars for support and dear life. (This will either make you an eloquent speaker or cause lumbago.)
The custom of celebrating St. Patricks Day in America in began in 1737. In fact, the first parade was held not in Ireland, but in Boston. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762. Along with their music, the parade helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots. Annual St Patrick Day parades became a show of strength for Irish Americans, as well as good politics. In 1948, President Truman attended New York Citys St. Patricks Day parade, a proud moment for the many Irish whose ancestors had to fight the degradations of racial prejudice before finding acceptance in America. Many public figures and many New York mayors over the years have attended the annual Fifth Avenue festival.
In Ireland almost all businesses, with the exception of restaurants, pubs and leprechaun shoemaker stations, close on the 17th of March. Being a religious holiday as well, many attend mass (people not leprechauns). It is a traditional day for offering prayers for missionaries throughout the world before the celebrating begins in earnest. (Without that, Spring might never occur anywhere in the world even with the help of the vernal equinox.)
So no matter what your persuasion or your favorite color, on March the 17th everyone should think green. Do whatever you need to do to clear your mind of all other colors. Watch out for little green men (especially in bars that serve green beer) and most of all, dont ever give up looking for that pot of gold.
Happy St. Patricks Day to all!
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