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St. Patrick's Day Facts: Snakes, a Slave, and a Saint

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 16, 2009
 
On St. Patrick's Day—Tuesday, March 17—millions of people will don green and celebrate the Irish in, and around, them with parades, good cheer, and perhaps a pint of beer.

But few St. Patrick's Day revelers have a clue about St. Patrick, the man, according to the author of St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography.

"The modern celebration of St. Patrick's Day really has almost nothing to do with the real man," said classics professor Philip Freeman of Luther College in Iowa.

Who Was the Man Behind St. Patrick's Day?

The real St. Patrick wasn't even Irish.

He was born in Britain around A.D. 390 to an aristocratic Christian family with a townhouse, a country villa, and plenty of slaves.

What's more, Patrick professed no interest in Christianity as a young boy, Freeman noted.

At 16, Patrick's world turned.

He was kidnapped and sent overseas to tend sheep as a slave in the chilly, mountainous countryside of Ireland for seven years.

"It was just horrible for him," Freeman said. "But he got a religious conversion while he was there and became a very deeply believing Christian."

Hearing Voices

According to folklore, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family.

The voice then told him to go back to Ireland.

"He gets ordained as a priest from a bishop and goes back and spends the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity," Freeman said.

Patrick's work in Ireland was tough—he was constantly beaten by thugs, harassed by the Irish royalty, and admonished by his British superiors.

After he died on March 17, 461, Patrick was largely forgotten.

But slowly, mythology grew up around Patrick. Centuries later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland, Freeman noted.

No Snakes in Ireland

The St. Patrick mythology includes the claim that he banished snakes from Ireland.

It's true no snakes exist on the island today, Freeman said. But they never did.

Ireland, after all, is surrounded by icy ocean waters—much too cold to allow snakes to migrate from Britain or anywhere else.

But since snakes often represent evil in literature, "when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland [and] brought in a new age," Freeman said.

The snakes myth and others—such as Patrick using three-leafed shamrocks to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost)—were likely spread by well-meaning monks centuries after St. Patrick's death, Freeman said.

(Related: "Snakeless in Ireland: Blame Ice Age, Not St. Patrick.")

St. Patrick's Day: Made in America?

Until the 1970s, St. Patrick's Day in Ireland was a minor religious holiday. A priest would acknowledge the feast day, and families would celebrate with a big meal, but that was about it.

"St. Patrick's Day was basically invented in America by Irish-Americans," Freeman said.

Timothy Meagher is an expert on Irish-American history at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

He said Irish charitable organizations originally celebrated St. Patrick's Day with banquets in places such as Boston, Massachusetts; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina.

Eighteenth-century Irish soldiers fighting with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War held the first St. Patrick's Day parades. Some soldiers, for example, marched through New York City in 1762 to reconnect with their Irish roots.

Other parades followed in the years and decades after, including well-known celebrations in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, primarily for flourishing Irish immigrant communities.

"It becomes a way to honor the saint but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity," Meagher said.

Wearing Green Clothes, Dyeing River Green

Sometime in the 19th century, as St. Patrick's Day parades were flourishing, wearing the color green became a show of commitment to Ireland, Meagher said.

In 1962 the show of solidarity took a spectacular turn in Chicago when the city decided to dye a portion of the Chicago River green.

The tradition started when parade organizer Steve Bailey, head of a plumbers' union, noticed how a dye used to detect river pollution had stained a colleague's overalls a brilliant green, according to greenchicagoriver.com.

Why not, Bailey thought, turn the river green on St. Patrick's Day? So began the tradition.

The environmental impact of the dye is minimal compared with sources of pollution such as bacteria from sewage-treatment plants, said Margaret Frisbie, the executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Chicago River.

Her group focuses instead on turning the Chicago River into a well-known habitat full of fish, herons, turtles, and beavers.

If the river becomes a wildlife haven, the thinking goes, Chicagoans won't want to dye their river green.

"Our hope is that, as the river continues to improve, ultimately people can get excited about celebrating St. Patrick's Day different ways," she said.

(Related: "St. Patrick's Day Fast Facts: Beyond the Blarney.")

Pint of Guinness

On any given day 5.5 million pints of Guinness, the famous Irish stout, are consumed around the world.

On St. Patrick's Day, that number more than doubles to 13 million pints, said Beth Davies Ryan, global corporate relations director of Guinness.

"Historically speaking, a lot of Irish immigrants came to the United States and brought with them lots of customs and traditions, one of them being Guinness," she said.

Today, the U.S. tradition of St. Patrick's Day parades, packed pubs, and green silliness has invaded Ireland with full force, noted Freeman, the classics professor.

The country, he noted, figured out the popularity of St. Patrick's Day was a good way to boost spring tourism.

"Like anybody else," he said, "they can take advantage of a good opportunity."
 

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