So you’ve bagged a seat in your nearest Irish boozer, scrummed your way to the bar and ordered a pint of the black stuff, and your furry shamrock hat is firmly ensconced on the head: congratulations, you are officially ready to start celebrating St Patrick’s Day. But who is St Patrick? We trace the history of the brewer’s favourite saint back to ancient Roman Britain.
Irish or not, Catholic or not, and whether you actually like Guinness or not these are small considerations now that the 17th of March is an international day of merry-making and general festivity.
It’s an excuse to wear as much green as you like, even if you’re blond. But before you go digging that pea-green jumper out of the back of the wardrobe, you might want to ask yourself what on earth you’re going to all this trouble for.
It will come as a surprise to many that St Patrick’s Day wasn’t invented by Dublin’s best-known brewery, even though Guinness sales double on that day.
The roots of the story of Ireland’s patron saint go back to the fourth century AD, when Britain was still occupied by Roman forces, and druids vied with the fledgling Christian church for power and influence over restless Celtic tribes.
So who was Patrick? Here are five historical nuggets that will give you a clue as to why we still celebrate this guy after more than 1,500 years.
1. From Roman Britain:The Real Saint Patrick is… Sanctus Patricius?
Patrick may be the patron saint of Ireland but he was by no means Irish. Possibly better known as Patricius during his lifetime, he was born in the latter half of the fourth century AD when Britain was under Roman rule. He lived between 387 and 493 AD, although there’s some debate about the exact dates, and was born in a place called Bannavem Taburniae.
The exact location of Bannavem Taburniae is still a bit of a mystery, but it has been associated with Birdoswald near Hadrian’s Wall, and with Furness in the Lake District. There’s also been an argument for it being in South Wales.
In his Confession, Patrick writes that his father was a deacon called Calpurnius, and his grandfather a priest called Potitus. The Latin forms of his family’s names could suggest that Patrick could have been a Roman citizen himself, although he may have been a Romanized Celt.
2. He Did Not, Repeat, NOT, Accept Bribes
While evidence about the life of Saint Patrick is a bit sketchy, he wrote two important documents that have survived and give us some interesting details about his life. One is Saint Patrick’s Confession (online here), which gives a lot of detail about his life. Patrick seems to be defending himself against accusations of some financial wrong-doing in this confession he stresses that he never took bribes or improper payments.
The other document, a Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, is addressed to the soldiers of a Celtic warrior-king called Coroticus (or Ceretic Guletic) who he describes: Dripping with blood, they welter in the blood of innocent Christians. He obbviously wasn’t a huge Coroticus fan.
3. Saint Patrick Was Kidnapped by Irish Pirates
At the age of 16, he was abducted by Irish brigands and was taken as a slave to Ireland, where he worked as a swineherd for several years and converted to Christianity. On returning to his home town, Patrick dreamt that the people of Ireland were calling him to them upon which he decided to travel back to Ireland and began his work of organising the Christian church there and converting pagans.
4. He Converted the Irish to Christianity
During his lifetime, he converted the people of Ireland to Christianity thousands of them, he claims in his Confession:
…in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God; the sons of the Irish [Scotti] and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ.
Patrick studied at Rouen and became a bishop, with his diocese in Ireland. Even though he’s Ireland’s most venerated saint, he has never been canonised by a Pope, although his name is on the official Catholic list of saints.
5. The Shamrock Represents the Holy Trinity
And that furry shamrock hat that people like to wear on Saint Patrick’s Day, or have inscribed on the head of their pint? That, too, is connected to the life of Saint Patrick. It’s said to represent his teachings, during which he plucked a shamrock and used its three-tipped leaf to symbolise how the Holy Trinity was made up of three parts, which together formed one holy spirit. That’s something to think about as you sip your Guinness.