St Patrick

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

As you may be aware, today, 17th March, is St Patrick’s Day, where much of the world seems to find a reason to have a connection with Ireland. St Patrick was an interesting character, and unlike lots of other patron saints, had a close association with Ireland.  He was born in a celtic part of the world, probably Wales but possibly France or Cumbria, before being captured and sold as a slave, possibly in the market in my home town of Larne.  He was taken off to tend swine and sheep on Slemish, the nearby mountain not far from Ballymena.  He escaped his captivity, and being the son of a Christian clergyman, went off to complete his training before returning to Ireland in 432AD as a missionary.  He had realised that the island was pagan, and wanted to bring the gospel of Christianity, which is what he did.  He set up at Saul, near Downpatrick – the name deriving from the Irish for the Fort of Patrick – and where a church was built in 1932 to mark the 1500th anniversary of his arrival.


One of the interesting things about Patrick is how his life mingled with the local stories and legends, and he has become as much a figure of legend as of the Christian religion. He famously drove the snakes out of Ireland – there are no snakes native to the island – and there are plenty of other stories about him striking rocks from which water poured, or meeting the spirit of Cu Chullain, the warrior known as the Hound of Ulster, or his staff becoming a living tree.  He brought his own brand of Christianity to Ireland by converting the various tribes in the various kingdoms to the new religion.


Growing up in Northern Ireland through the troubles, I was always impressed that St Patrick was one of the few figures who was celebrated by both of the main traditions there, the Unionists and the Nationalists.  Most of the Christian churches recognised St Patrick, and as much of his missionary and his first trip to Ireland were in modern Northern Ireland, that made him additionally popular.  St Patrick’s Day was unusual in that it was celebrated by both protestants and catholics. Having this unifying ability a millennium and a half after his death was more than most contemporary politicians could do.


As well as the legends about St Patrick, there were plenty of places that take their name in part from him, like Downpatrick.  In addition, there are a series of activities still current that come from celebrating his life.  The shamrock has three leaves, and yet these form one leaf.  St Patrick used this to explain the Holy Trinity, how God was one person but three at the same time. The shamrock is still a symbol of Ireland.  As a student in Belfast, many of my contemporaries had moved away from home for the first time and found the party lifestyle of student life harder to cope with than expected, and the season of Lent was often a good reason to give up alcohol for forty days.  However, local tradition is that that the celebrations for St Patrick allow you to legitimately break any Lenten abstinence, and those who had enjoyed a few weeks of sobriety were often returned to their more traditional state of enjoying student life.


As much as St Patrick unifies people positively, there are also some things related to St Patrick that manage to irritate people in Ireland across the religion spectrum.  Mistaking the shamrock for a four leaf clover will generally be met with a rolling of eyes, or worse.  However, the thing about St Patrick that causes most rile in Ireland is when the 17th March is referred to as St Patty’s Day.  St Paddy’s day is fine, with Paddy being a derivative of Patrick – the Irish for Patrick is Padraig – however, Patty is one of two things; a shortening of Patricia or some ground beef, like a hamburger.  Neither of these things seems a very auspicious way to refer to the patron saint of Ireland.  This particular communication from Snickers, therefore, seems almost to be a parody of St Patrick’s Day.


The oddest St Patrick’s Day I have had was in Singapore with some Stormtroopers, more details here.  Definitely required a double take.


As well as St Patrick’s Day, today is also International Happiness Day, as designated by the United Nations.  Hopefully plenty will be happy today, and I’m sure there will be at least a few students in Belfast who are at least merry.