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Monday, February 6, 2012

Who is Saint Patrick?

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All over the world, March 17th is set aside to celebrate St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. We wear green, eat, drink, and occasionally have a parade. Have you ever wondered who Saint Patrick was and why we celebrate his life?  Time for a quick history lesson!  I can hear my children groan in agony as I remind them that celebrating something you know nothing about is, frankly, stupid (yes, I used the “s” word).

Apparently, two authentic letters from him have survived. It is from these letters that the only universally accepted details of his life are revealed. He was born in Roman Britain. At about the age of 16, he was kidnapped from Wales by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family.

He became a priest in Britain. He became an ordained bishop and chose to return to Ireland as a missionary. The precise dates of Patrick’s life cannot be determined with certainty, but it is widely accepted that he was working as a missionary in Ireland during the second half of the 5th century.

Pious legend credits St. Patrick with banishing snakes from the island, chasing them into the sea after they assailed him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill. This legend evokes Biblical symbolism and scientists have weighed in with theories purporting to disprove the validity of this story. Others suggest that the snakes (or serpents) are representative of the Druids. True, untrue, myth, legend . . . it makes for a good story.

According to Irish folklore, he also used a shamrock to explain the Christian concept of Trinity to the Irish. In spite of continuous opposition from pagan leaders, he continued to evangelize for thirty years while baptizing newly converted Christians and establishing monasteries, churches, and schools. He died on March 17th and was canonized by the local church.

Originally, the color associated with Saint Patrick was blue. Over the years this has changed to green. Shamrocks were often worn in honor of Saint Patrick. The phrase "the wearing of the green", meaning to wear a shamrock on one's clothing, derives from a song of the same name . . . and there you go.

Saint Patrick's Day was first publicly celebrated in Boston in 1737 where a large population of Irish immigrants resided. It was not until 1903 that Saint Patrick's Day became an official public holiday in Ireland. During the mid 90's, the Irish government also began a campaign to promote tourism in Ireland on March 17th.

While many Catholics still quietly celebrate this day of religious observance by going to mass, Saint Patrick's Day slowly evolved to become a celebration of Irish heritage, when all things Irish make an annual appearance in festivities around the world.

We are a proud Irish American family. Every year we celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day with a day of remembrance and storytelling in celebration of the ancestors who have gone before us, in celebration of our heritage, with pride in our culture. It is a day, however fleeting, when we can shake the suburban dust off our children to remind them how we got here. Because for this Irish American it is also a celebration of the journey that started in Ireland over one hundred years ago, and against incredible odds, ends in a small southern town with an Irish Catholic boy who married this Irish Protestant girl.

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