Skip to main content
Icon of Saint Patrick from Christ the Savior Orthodox Church

Saint Patrick's Day: Fact and Fiction

An icon of Saint Patrick | Image: Image: CC BY-SA 2.0

March the 17th is the anniversary of the death of Maewyn Succat, a child of Roman parents born in Scotland (or some say Wales, others England) sometime around 400 AD. In his teenage years Maewyn was kidnapped by pirates, taken across the Irish Sea, and sold into slavery. He spent six years looking after sheep on Slemish mountain in County Antrim, during which time he became fluent in the Irish language. The story then goes that having prayed to God, an avenue of escape came to Maewyn in a dream; he fled to the coast and found boat waiting to take him back to Britain. From there, having had the power of the Lord proven to him, Maewyn travelled to France were he trained to be a priest and later a bishop. Upon doing so he changed his Roman Briton to a Latin one: Patricus, or Patrick as we call him today.

So wait, Saint Patrick wasn't Irish? And his name wasn't even Patrick? Next I'll be saying he didn't invent stout! Well look, I don't want spoil everything about Saint Patrick's Day for you, but here are a few less well known facts about the man, and the day, you might like to share down at the pub this evening.

Saint Patrick the Reboot

Patrick had already been adopted as the Patron Saint of Ireland by the 7th century AD but it was the work of an Leinster monk named Muirchú moccu Machthen that cemented the modern day version of him in many ways. Muirchú wrote a biography of the saint, but he had his own motives for doing so. The monk wanted to unite the warring tribes of Ireland and the Irish Church under the leadership of the Church of Armagh, which also just happened to be the seat of the country’s most powerful clan, the O’Neills. Realising he needed an heroic figure around whom he could unite the Irish people, he set about creating a work that knitted together biographical details of Saint Patrick's life using more exciting mythical stuff which he more or less just made up. The Irish were the chosen people and Patrick was their prophet. Turns out all went down pretty well with both the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the Anglican Church of Ireland having their seats in Armagh, with cathedrals dedicated to him.

It's blue, not green

Despite the proliferation of all things green being associated with Saint Patrick's Day, the Saint's true colour was blue. Saint Patrick's blue is a name applied to several shades of blue associated with the saint. In the 1780s it was adopted as the colour of the Anglo-Irish "Order of St. Patrick". While green is the national colour of Ireland (“the Emerald Isle”), Saint Patrick's blue is still found in symbols of both the state and the island.

An All American Holiday

The very first Saint Patrick's Day parade took place in America in 1737 and was hosted by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston. Yes, Americans make a very big deal of “Saint Patty's Day” - in Chicago they have been dying the river that runs through the city green in it's honour every year since 1962 – but there is a good reason for that. In the USA there are an estimated 34 million people of Irish ancestry, whereas the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland's combined total population is less than 7 million. There are almost five times more people who identify themselves as Irish or Irish American in the USA as there are on the total landmass of Ireland itself. So, as much as we over here might get a bit snooty about Americans getting Paddy's Day wrong (“They can't even get the name right”), with all their going on about corned beef and dyeing every conceivable drink and foodstuff bright green, it turns out that they did actually pretty much invent it.

Patrick on Ice

One of the most famous legends about Saint Patrick tells how, after being tormented by snakes during a forty day fast, he stood upon a cliff and drove all the snakes on the entire landmass into the sea. To this day there are no native snake species in Ireland but, in truth, that goes back quite a bit further than the 5th century. Snakes died out in Ireland during the last Ice Age, about 1.8 million years ago, and when the big thaw came the Irish Sea had formed cutting Ireland off from the rest of Europe and preventing reptiles from recolonising the island.