Who Was Saint Patrick?

Kilbennan_St._Benin's_Church_Window_St._Patrick_Detail_2010_09_16Every year on Mar. 17, people around the world gather together in green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. But who is the man behind the holiday, and why is he remembered?

Contrary to popular belief, much of Patrick’s life is a mystery. Most of the well-known stories about him are all myths, such as the famous legend of him banishing all snakes from Ireland. What is known about St. Patrick is that he was born in England to wealthy parents near the end of the fourth century. When he was a teenager, he was kidnapped by pirates from his home in Roman Britain and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he spent six years in captivity. Eventually, he escaped, spending time in monasteries in Britain and France.

As a priest, he returned to Ireland several years later and converted many Irish to Christianity. It is believed that he died on Mar. 17, around A.D. 460, and many villagers across Ireland mourned his death on this day. From that grew a celebration.

The Charitable Irish Society of Boston organized the first observance of St. Patrick’s Day in the 13 colonies in 1737. Surprisingly, the celebration was not Catholic in nature, since the Irish immigrants were dominated by Protestants. The society’s purpose in gathering was simply to honor its homeland, and although they continued to meet annually to coordinate charitable works for the Irish community in Boston, they did not meet on Mar. 17 again until 1794. During the observance of the day, individuals attended a service of worship and a special dinner.

Today, St. Patrick’s Day is widely celebrated in America by Irish and non-Irish alike. For most Irish-Americans, this holiday is both religious and festive. It is one of the leading days for consumption of alcohol in the United States, as individuals are allowed to break their Lenten sacrifices for the day in order to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The consumption of artificially-colored green beer is extremely common.

Green Beer Day, for instance, is a tradition among students at Miami University, dating back to 1952; the day has been held on the Thursday before spring break, due to the fact that St. Patrick’s Day often occurs during the spring recess. Since its transformation, the holiday has been criticized for promoting over-indulgence in alcohol, resulting in drunk driving, property damage, public urination and other ill effects.

But regardless of why you are celebrating, Irish or not, remember to wear something green and that there is a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.

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