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While most individual saints are venerated for their virtuous characteristics and morally sound behaviour, St. Patrick's prominent place in saintly circles was earned as Ireland's own apostle: the man who brought Christianity to the island. Claire Santry, one of Ireland's leading genealogy experts, recounts the story of St. Patrick and the many traditions that followed thereafter. 

The Story of Saint Patrick

While most individual saints are venerated for their virtuous characteristics and morally sound behaviour, St Patrick's prominent place in saintly circles was earned as Ireland's very own apostle: the man who brought Christianity to the island. Never mind  that he was neither Irish nor the first to attempt conversion of the pagan inhabitants, the story of St Patrick has been spread and celebrated by Irish emigrants around the globe. He is the Patron Saint of Ireland, and, in the not-so-reverential  world of modern popular culture, as the patron saint of parties.

He wasn't a party animal, though. He was a hard-working and fearless kind of guy, who had the good sense to incorporate existing pagan beliefs and symbols into his teachings, and accepted curbs on his freedom and bouts of imprisonment as features of his job description.

These restrictions on his movements began early in his life. The son of a Roman-British minor official and deacon called Calpornius, Patrick is thought to have been born between 423 and 433 in Banna Vemta Burniae, a settlement that has never been precisely identified but may have been in the Scottish lowlands, Cumbria or North Wales.

Captured by Irish Pirates

Aged sixteen, he was captured by Irish pirates and sold to a slave master in County Antrim. He spent the next six years working as a slave herdsman tending sheep and pigs on Slemish Mountain, on the seaward side of Ballymena, where he learned to speak Irish and became increasingly religious. In his autobiographical Confessio, an abridged copy of which survives in the Book of Armagh, Patrick wrote of having a vision in which he was encouraged to escape and return home.

This he did, only to have a dream that the Irish were calling him back to their shores to tell them about God. This inspired him to become a priest, but it was to take some twelve years  of study in a French monastery before he felt adequately prepared for life as a missionary and returned to the island with the Pope's blessing.

Christian Missionary

He was not the first Christian missionary in Ireland, nor was he its first bishop. These achievements belonged to Palladius who had already established  a number of Christian communities. Patrick's role was to build on the earlier successes of Palladius and spread the word.

It wasn't all plain sailing. He fell out with Druids and was occasionally imprisoned by local chieftains but for the best part of twenty years he travelled the length and breadth of the island, baptising people and establishing monasteries, schools and churches as he went.

When he died on 17 March (probably ) in the year 493, he left behind an organised church, the See of Armagh, and an island of Christians, and was buried either in the village of Saul, in County Down, or, possibly, in Armagh City.

He was revered in Ireland very soon after he died, so it may be that his 17 March anniversary was spent as a holy day of remembrance by his followers in the immediate aftermath of his death.

Tírechán and Muirchú

In the 7th century, his missionary story was retold by Irish monks including Tírechán and Muirchú.  In these texts, Patrick's 'back story' was embellished. He acquired a foster mother, for example, and his legend was developed with tales of miracles. Later texts saw even further development of his credentials, with reports of an audience with the Pope and the saint's personal belongings such as bells and staffs which then became items of pilgrimage.

By the 15th century, the anniversary of Patrick's death was recognised in Ireland's official calendar of 35 feast and fasting days. While all these days were important, 17 March was one of the most special because St Patrick's life was so closely connected to the island.

Feast Day of Saint Patrick

True to Irish tradition, his feast day was a boisterous and boozy affair. It might have started with a pilgrimage to a sacred spot such as a holy well or chapel, where mass and/or prayers would be said, but it always concluded with food, drink, music, dance and playing spirited games.

Following the 16th-century Reformation, any practices thought to be essentially Roman Catholic were outlawed, so the religious nature of the celebrations was disguised by holding local fairs and markets, and generally ignoring the law. The status quo continued into the early 1700s when the authorities relented. By this time, St Patrick's Day was recognised as a religious occasion in Ireland's official legal calendar (1607), and in 1631 it was added to the Roman Catholic Church calendar.

Saint Patricks Day Parades

Although parades have become the main feature of St Patrick's Day celebrations, they did not originate in Ireland. It was the city of New York that started the tradition on 17 March 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English army marched to music through the streets. The idea took off, and was soon being copied in cities across North America, in big Irish bases in England, and many of the other destinations where Irish emigrants had sailed in search of a better life.

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About the Author: Claire Santry is a long-time journalist and editor. Her blog has been called “the centre of the Irish family history universe.”

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