March 17 marks the celebration and feast day of Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. Though the exact dates and events of his life have been blurred and confused over the centuries, it is generally understood that he lived in the 5th century AD. What is ascertained is that there was indeed a Patrick who became the primary Irish prelate of the early Roman Catholic church.
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Born in Roman Britannia (though accounts vary as to precisely where), Patrick was hardly religious — despite his father’s occupation as deacon in the local church. At the tender age of 16, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders, or pirates, and brought to Ireland, where he was enslaved for the next six years. He worked in the menial capacity of a shepherd for the duration of his early sojourn in Ireland, and it is during this period that he reconciled to Christianity and developed the piety he would later be renowned for. Possibly, the nonviolent ethos of the Christian church he had been raised in, as opposed to the hardships he suffered at the hands of his pagan captors, was responsible for the germination of the roots of his future evangelism.
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Upon returning home, Saint Patrick devoted himself to the church in Britain until angelic intervention relayed a message to him that his duty lay in working as a Christian missionary in Ireland. With this newfound purpose, Patrick returned to the Ireland that had been such a large, and likely frightening, part of his youth and remained there for the rest of his life. Though his canonization was never formalized by the Pope, his sainthood has been venerated since nearly the time of his death and he is widely referred to as “the Apostle of Ireland.”
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However, over the years a variety of legends have sprung up around this saint. Perhaps the most famous is that, upon being disturbed by snakes during a period of fasting, Saint Patrick drove all the snakes of Ireland into the sea with the aid of his holy staff. Supposedly, this is the reason why to this day there are no snakes in that country.
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Another famous legend details why Patrick is so closely associated with the shamrock. It is said that in order to teach the pagan Irish about the Christian holy trinity, he illustrated the tri-partite deity through the means of a three-leaf shamrock. The shamrock, already sacred to the early Irish, remains a symbol of both Ireland and Patrick.
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Every year, the date of Patrick’s death (March 17) is celebrated in Ireland and abroad. Though the Irish church still holds it to be a solemn and highly religious day, many places punctuate the celebration with cheerful parades, wild partying and the wearing of green or orange (Irish national colors). An early American tradition for the holiday has friends pinching others who are not wearing green. In the United States, the more secularized revels typically include symbols such as the leprechaun, foods such as soda bread and corned beef, and, of course, beer and Irish whiskey.
This St. Patrick’s Day, be sure to have fun, to sparkle and, most importantly, be safe!