Here's a fun game to play: walk into a bar on Saint Patrick's Day and ask drunk partygoers where Saint Patrick is from. Ireland, right?
Not exactly. Saint Patrick was an Englishman.
But that's just one of many misconceptions surrounding the patron saint of Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Day has gained international reputation as a raucous celebration of drinking, the color green, and all things Irish.
But for all the Guinness that gets consumed each year on March 17th in his name, few revelers could tell you much (accurate) info about St. Patrick himself. So who was this figure, and why does he have an entire holiday named after him?
Saint Patrick: The True Origin Story
By far the biggest misconception about Saint Patrick is his heritage. People naturally assume he was Irish, but in fact, Maewyn Succat (Saint Patrick’s given name) was born around 386 A.D. in Bannavem Taberniae, part of modern-day England.
His father was a wealthy deacon, although Patrick himself was not particularly religious and it’s been speculated his father only pursued his career for tax incentives.
At the age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped by raiders and taken to Ireland, where he was forced to work as a laborer. Because of his fear and separation from his family, he turned to his faith, growing devout as he sought solace in God.
Per his own writings, Patrick repeatedly heard God speak to him. He eventually escaped his captors, walked 200 miles to an Irish port, and convinced a ship’s captain to allow him to sail back to England with them.
Captive Turned Missionary
After returning to his homeland, Patrick received another heavenly vision, this one telling him to return to Ireland and spread the holy word.
The next forty years were spent converting thousands of Irish Pagans to Christianity. And he was apparently very good at it. One of Patrick's strategies was integrating aspects of Irish culture into Christian tradition.
“He used bonfires to celebrate Easter since the Irish were used to honoring their gods with fire. He also superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross, so that veneration of the symbol would seem more natural to the Irish."
Patrick was so successful in spreading Christianity that he eventually was elevated to sainthood.
Driving Out the Snakes
It was the results of this missionary work that sparked one of the most enduring myths about Saint Patrick: that he drove the snakes out of Ireland.
This has been proven false – snakes are not native to Ireland, nor does there exist any fossil record of snakes ever living there.
So how did the myth start? There is wide speculation that these "snakes" in question are not snakes at all, but a crude reference to Pagans. The success of Patrick's missionary work eventually drove Pagans out of Ireland – largely through conversion to Christianity.
That's roughly the sum of what we know about Saint Patrick. His life remains mostly a mystery, which has led to all sorts of speculation and myth-building.
So before you enter a Saint Patrick trivia contest this year, remember this quote from Mark Twain: "it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so."
Here are some more common myths that just ain't so:
- Saint Patrick was never actually canonized. There was no formal process for it during this time, so it's believed he was simply proclaimed a saint by popular demand.
- He was not the first man to bring Christianity to Ireland, as many believe. That would be Palladius, sent by Pope Celestine I to Ireland circa 431. Some historians think that many of the stories attributed to Saint Patrick are actually about Palladius, and over time the two became conflated in the historical record.
- While the shamrock is now a celebrated icon of Saint Patrick’s Day, there’s no historical proof that he ever used a shamrock to illustrate the holy trinity to the Irish.
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