Everything you need to know about Ireland's patron saint on St Patrick's Day

Wednesday, 17th March 2021, 12:08 pm
Updated Wednesday, 17th March 2021, 1:17 pm

Saint Patrick’s Day is one of the most celebrated feast days of any saint around the world.

The patron saint of Ireland is celebrated on 17 March, as he died on this date in around 461 AD.

People across Ireland, Northern Ireland, Canada and the US celebrate, as well as Irish descendants in the UK, New Zealand and Asia.

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So, who was he and what did he do? This is everything you need to know about Saint Patrick.

Who was Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick was a Bishop in Ireland and is regarded as the founder of Christianity in Ireland, converting the Irish people from Celtic polytheism to Catholicism.

He is known as “the Apostle of Ireland”, he was the Bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, which signifies that he was the leader and most senior figure of the church in Ireland.

Patrick was born in Britain in the early fifth century, near or around modern-day Cumbria. It is said that at 16 years old he was taken by pirates to Ireland, where he was held as a slave and worked as a shepherd.

It was during his six years of captivity in County Mayo that he converted to Christianity.

He is reported to have dreamt of his duty to become a bishop, and left Ireland after he had a dream that an angel told him he must leave.

Patrick walked nearly 200 miles from County Mayo to the Irish coast. When he returned home to Britain, he reported that he had experienced a second revelation in which an angel had told him to return to Ireland as a missionary.

After 15 years training to become a priest, he was ordained and sent back to Ireland to convert the country to Christianity.

What did Saint Patrick do?

Two important scriptures of Patrick’s remain intact today.

These are the Declaration, which gives a short account of his life and his mission, and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus.

In the Declaration, he refers to the Franks, German speaking Roman invaders, as pagans - they converted to Christianity in the early 500s. The style of writing used also allowed historians to date his life to the 400s.

Even the date of his death on 17 March 461 cannot be confirmed, though it is largely believed he knew he was going to die and travelled back to Saul, Ireland. He died here and was buried in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland.

During his life, Patrick converted Ireland from a pagan country to a Christian country, by incorporating Chrisitianity into Irish culture. This included using bonfires to celebrate Easter since the Irish had previously honoured their gods with fire.

The Celtic cross is also an Irish symbol devised by Patrick, he created it by superimposing a sun onto the Christian cross, as the sun represented fire also.

He baptised thousands, according to the Declaration, and ordained many celtic leaders to preach the word of God. He also converted the sons of kings, as they would have had power and authority over their own people.

Patrick wrote: “Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God.

“The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ.”

By the late seventh century, he was already largely considered a saint, but there was no formal canonisation at the time so he has never been formally recognised as one. Despite this, the Roman Catholic church does refer to him as a saint.

How is the shamrock related to Saint Patrick?

The shamrock, a three-leaf clover, has been associated with Ireland for centuries.

It was originally called the “seamroy” by the Celts and was considered a sacred plant which symbolised the arrival of spring.

St. Patrick used the plant to explain the Holy Trinity, as it has three leaves all leading into one stalk.

The plant is now a symbol of Saint Patrick and Ireland more generally, and a four-leaf clover is considered good luck.

How was Saint Patrick’s Day historically celebrated?

The feast day of Saint Patrick has been celebrated in Ireland since around the seventh century, but celebrations today include parades, dances and festive food.

The first Saint Patrick’s Day parade was held in 1601, by a Spanish colony which had emigrated to Florida.

In 1772, British forces based in New York decided to march to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day.

Other Irish immigrants and missionaries in the state decided to hold their own, and in 1848, they agreed to come together to form one big parade.

The mass emigration of Irish people to US ports, such as New York, in the mid and late 1800s due to the potato famine also led to more Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations across the country.

People celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day also wore green as it symbolises luck and the colour is supposed to make you invisible to leprechauns - who pinch you and bring bad luck, according to legend.

Until the 1970s, the day was a holy festival of prayer in Ireland and pubs were ordered to close.

How is Saint Patrick’s Day celebrated today?

The St Patrick’s Day parade in New York is the oldest civilian parade in the world, attracting over 150,000 participants and over 3 million spectators lining the streets of the 1.5 mile long march.

Elsewhere in the States, the Chicago river is dyed green with a vegetable based paint. There are also parades in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Savannah to celebrate the day, usually involving between 10,000 and 20,000 participants each.

While the parades were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, the Chicago River was still dyed green.

In Ireland, the day is still strongly considered holy and many attend church, though this is not an option in 2021 due to coronavirus. Many people will also wear green and Dublin will also usually attract thousands of tourists to its parade, which this year is cancelled.

Families and loved ones also gather to celebrate Ireland more generally, with traditional Irish food and folk music.

Japan, New Zealand and Montreal in Canada usually celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day with a parade also.