The 17th of March is a day when there is much green to be seen. Tradition says that if a person isn’t wearing green, they deserve a pinch. The green is in reference to Ireland, known as the Emerald Isle for its lush rolling hills and countrysides and the day is named in honor of Saint Patrick, considered a patron saint of Ireland. In our modern popular culture, it seems mostly a day of drinking and festivities, with leprechauns and shamrocks at least as popular as the figure of St. Patrick. Parades and other activities are held as a way to recognize Irish heritage and culture. Like many things throughout history, it may have been an actual fete (feast day celebration) at one point, and in some societies it likely still is, but here and now, St. Patrick’s Day is mostly another day for fun and merriment.
St. Patrick is credited with ‘driving the snakes out of Ireland’. Science has shown us however that during Patrick’s lifetime in the post-glacial period, Ireland never had snakes. The snakes are said to be the Druids, the priestly caste of the Celtic people, and his reputation of ridding the island of the snakes is a poetic way of saying he drove out the Pagans and converted Ireland to Christianity. Among many modern-day Pagans, St. Patrick is reviled for this act, but is that entirely accurate as well?
St. Patrick is not canonized as a saint on the list of Saints of the Catholic Church. His sainthood is more a label given out of popular love and admiration and wasn’t decreed by papal authority. It is quite possible that like many figures of myth and legend, St. Patrick is a combination of different people that have been blended together to create a good story.
What we claim to know of the historical Patrick and his work in Ireland comes down from two letters: The Confession of Saint Patrick and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. In the letter to the soldiers, it is shown that Patrick cared deeply for the Irish people (specifically mentioning the Christian ones, but at least he didn’t want to see the entire population all murdered), respected them, and spoke out against their slaughter at the hands of their enemies, the Picts and Scots. According to more current historical documents, Patrick was not the one responsible for driving out the Druids, a man named Palladius was. Palladius is very likely to be one of the historical figures combined with some others to create the legendary St. Patrick we know of today.
The legends of St. Patrick talk of him converting Ireland to Christianity by using a shamrock to explain the Trinity. This idea is bound to the understanding that to the ancient Celts, triads in multiple forms were considered sacred. Triskeles and triquetras which go back many years before Patrick’s legendary arrival to the island show this. The concept of a divine triune godhead was not new to them. Many of their gods and goddesses had a triple form. This was how he was able to show similiarities between the native Celtic deities and the Christian concept of the Trinity.
Christianity in Ireland spread from the ‘top down’, meaning it was the kings and chieftains who were converted first, most often because they willingly accepted the missionaries’ words and teachings, while the populace still actively practiced the older Pagan traditions. Conversion in Ireland was slow, happening a piece at a time, and compared to the conversions of other parts of Europe, it was in fact quite peaceful and non-violent. Because of this, Celtic/Irish Christianity had its own unique flavor for hundreds of years and still has it to an extent where these folk customs and practices are ingrained and accepted by the Christian population today.
An important thing that comes from Patrick’s documentation is that he loved Ireland and the Irish people. When choosing to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, this should be the main focus and in this way, Pagans can let go and heal from the burden and pain of thinking this is a day to honor a man who committed unspeakable horrors, because it wasn’t him and it wasn’t like that. We need to come to terms as a community with allowing more accuracy to be presented in our history.
Instead, use this day as Patrick did, celebrating a rich and complex people, enjoying Irish heritage and celebrating as the people of old Ireland would have: lots of music, dance, and no shortage of alcohol.