Founded in the 17th Century, Saint Patrick’s Day is both a commemoration of Ireland’s patron saint as well as a popular celebration of Irish culture enjoyed worldwide by the Irish and the Irish-at-heart. Folks wear green, host parties and parades, and enjoy Irish food, drink, and dancing. While the holiday holds special significance for Irish-Americans (who represent the largest chunk of the global Irish diaspora), Saint Patrick’s Day is a feast that all are invited to share in.
The lasting, inclusive nature of this holiday has much to do with the Irish people, their fight for freedom, and their collective experience as immigrants in America. Fittingly, Ireland’s patron saint was himself an immigrant to Ireland from his native Roman-British shores. We celebrate Patrick today because he successfully spread Christianity across 5th century Ireland – a mission that forever altered the destiny of the Irish people. Patrick is beloved for preaching in the Gaelic language, for using natural imagery to illustrate Gospel truths, and for driving away superstitious pagan beliefs.
Like many early saints, Patrick’s story is a mixture of legend and fact. However, beyond the colorful lore stands a real person whose deeds and words continue to inspire and affect us. To help you better know the man behind the myth, here are ten fascinating facts about Ireland’s very first bishop:
1. Patrick was not born Irish. While he spent the majority of his life living among and ministering to the Irish people, Patrick was a Roman Briton by birth. His exact birthdate and birthplace are uncertain, but it is believed he was born in Scotland, England, or in northern Wales around 386 A.D.
2. Patrick first came to Ireland as the captive of Irish pirates. Patrick was a teenager when he and “a large number of his father’s slaves” were stolen and sold into slavery by Irish raiders. This began a six-year stay of captivity in Ireland, during which Patrick’s spiritual conversion began while he labored as a shepherd.
3. Patrick escaped slavery with help from a dream. After years of suffering and intense prayer, a voice in his dream said, “You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country” [Confessio, 17]. The voice then told him where he would find a ship, some two hundred miles away, to carry him home to Britain and his family.
4. Patrick spent time studying for the priesthood in France. After his return to the Britons, Patrick travelled and continued his studies in Christianity at Auxere, France (formerly Gaul), possibly visiting Marmoutier Abbey in Tours, before being ordained.
5. Patrick received a vision calling him back to Ireland. After his parents begged him to cease his adventures, Patrick received another dream in which a man approached him carrying letters from the Irish people and imploring his return. Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM says, “What is interesting about this dream… is that it came not as a directive from God, but as a plea from the Irish…. Patrick wasn't commanded to bring civilization or salvation to the heathens. He was invited to live among them as Christ's witness.”
6. Patrick’s Irish mission was unpopular. Few of Patrick’s brother clergy shared his sympathy for the Irish people, who were viewed as barbaric and hostile. Patrick’s superiors disapproved of his calling; his Confessio (first-person account of his life) was written partially as a defense and a response to critics of his mission.
7. Patrick wasn’t the first Christian missionary to Ireland. Fr. Jack explains, “There were some Irish Christians, mostly on the eastern and southeastern coast. Many of these were probably British slaves who had been taken into captivity by the Irish. There is a record of a Bishop Palladius being sent to Ireland before Patrick. But the mission of Patrick was unique.”
8. Patrick taught the Gospel through Celtic language and symbolism. Patrick preached effectively in the Gaelic tongue, and he employed pre-existing pagan symbols in transmitting the faith. While Patrick’s use of the three-leaf clover to illustrate the Trinity was likely a later addition to his legend, Patrick’s Confessio specifically details his distinctions between Irish pagan sun worship and Christian worship – including Old Latin wordplay of the words sun and Son. Irish priest Fr. Liam Lawton notes, “the Celtic cross we know today was basically a cross superimposed on the sun… Patrick convert[ed] sun worship to Son worship.”
9. Patrick drove out superstitious practices, rather than snakes. Patrick is said to have driven out “all the snakes of Ireland” into the sea. While the National Museum of Ireland’s fossil collections and records provide no evidence for snake species ever having existed in Ireland, Patrick likely did the Irish a greater service through his concrete and traceable efforts to build churches and ordain Irish priests—efforts which helped to drive out the druids who had formerly dominated Irish spiritual affairs.
10. Patrick wasn’t always associated with the color green. Jumping forward in time – Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations first bloomed in America in the early 1700s, where the Irish diaspora developed them into the holiday we recognize today. However, says NYU professor Marion Casey, “It wasn’t until 1798, the year of the Irish Rebellion, that the color green became officially associated with the day.” Before then, “The color associated with St. Patrick was blue, as it was featured both in the royal court and on ancient Irish flags. But as the British wore red, the Irish chose to wear green, and they sang the song ‘The Wearing of the Green’ during the rebellion, cementing the color’s relevance in Irish history.”
Wishing you a blessed and fun Saint Patrick’s Day – Sláinte (Health)!
The lives of the Irish saints have been a wonderful inspiration in my life and faith journey. As I am a descendant of Irish immigrants to America, the hagiographies of saints like Patrick, Columba, and Brigid contain threads of Celtic culture and history that help me to understand Ireland better. These stories also help me as I seek God in daily life and in my relationships with others.
Just a few days ago, the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Brigid of Kildare. Along with St. Patrick and St. Columba, St. Brigid is considered a patron saint of Ireland. Born in the 5th century, much of her life is detailed only in myth and legend. However, in later biographies, it is agreed that Brigid was born around 450 A.D. to a Christian woman and slave named Broicsech, who herself was baptized by St. Patrick.
Brigid was a generous girl who performed deeds of charity at an early age. She was “veiled,” or accepted into religious life, and later became abbess. From this point on, the miracles attributed to Brigid are fantastic and too numerous to list here.
The most well-known story may be that of Brigid’s cloak. According to legend, Brigid once approached the King of Leinster requesting land on which to build her monastery. When the miserly king refused, Brigid asked, “Give me as much land as my cloak will cover.” Laughing at the small cloak in her arms, the king agreed. Yet Brigid asked four of her helpers to pull the cloak in opposite directions. As the helpers ran north, south, east and west, the cloak grew and grew until it covered many acres, and the king pleaded with her to stop. He agreed to donate adequate land, on which was built Brigid’s famous monastery at Kildare. The king later converted to Christianity.
For many years—pre-dating Christianity—a sacred fire that was kept by local priestesses had been burning in Kildare. Brigid continued this custom of keeping a fire alight (now representing the new light of Christianity) as she established what is considered the first monastery for women in Ireland. Incredibly, Brigid’s fire burned continuously into the 16th century! Brigid also founded a monastery for men around the same time. As a prototype for women of leadership in the faith, “Brigid held a unique position in the Irish Church and in the society of her day. As Abbess, she presided over the local Church of Kildare and was leader of a double monastery for men and women” (The Brigidine Sisters).
Brigid died on February 1st, 525 A.D., which we celebrate now as her feast day. Brigid’s Day is associated with many customs in Ireland and throughout the world, including candle-lit pilgrimages and the weaving of Brigid’s Crosses (instructions on how to make your own Brigid’s Cross here). Brigid’s feast day aligns with Imbolc, the ancient pagan festival marking the beginnings of the return of spring – another example of her legacy bridging the gap between the old world and the new.
Brigid is remembered today as a woman of contemplation and action, devoted to serving others and bringing an end to strife and conflict. She is also held as a model for creative co-operation with God, and is a favored saint of many artists, musicians, and writers.
Brigid lived and died nearly 1500 years ago, yet I am confident that the example of her life has never been more relevant. Just like Brigid’s time, this century we live in calls for dynamic conflict resolution skills and creative community-building efforts. Like Brigid, we too must protect and care for the vulnerable among us. And for a Church seeking better ways to engage and accompany young people regarding discernment and faith, the model of a young woman and entrepreneurial leader like Brigid offers clear insight for how to engage and empower the next generation.
This weekend is the feast of St. Patrick—one of the most popular saints in the Archdiocese of Washington where I grew up and arguably in the entire United States. But two days later on March 19, coming much more quietly and with far less fanfare in American culture, slips in the Solemnity of St. Joseph.
It is easy to lose the Solemnity of St. Joseph in the rigors of Lenten observances or because it comes on the heels of the day-long party that seems to happen every year on St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps we often overlook this feast because we know so little about who St. Joseph was and what his life was like. Nevertheless, St. Joseph remains an incredibly important figure, especially for parents.
Joseph is mentioned only a few times in the New Testament. We know from the Gospels that Joseph was a law-abiding and righteous man, and that he obeyed God’s will—especially when it was revealed to him directly by an angel. After these few mentions in the infancy narratives of Jesus, St. Joseph gently fades into the background and then disappears altogether from the Gospels. But the Church in her wisdom has made St. Joseph’s importance clear for those who are paying attention: he is mentioned in all four Eucharistic Prayers at Mass, as well as in the Divine Praises during Benediction at the end of Eucharistic adoration.
But what makes St. Joseph so special? From what we can glean from the Gospels, St. Joseph was an ordinary man of deep faith who was called to become the foster-father of Christ. He became the earthly guardian of the Messiah, responsible for his upbringing and tasked with protecting him in his early life. St. Joseph’s commitment to his vocation as the husband of Mary and the foster father of Christ was so strong that upon being warned about the murderous intentions of King Herod, he fled immediately—in the middle of the night!—to Egypt. He did whatever it took, even leaving his entire life behind him, in order to keep his family safe. The little we see of him in the New Testament shows us a devout man who always trusted in God and took care of his family.
St. Joseph, as the third member of the Holy Family, is the member who is the most like us—especially those of us who are parents. He was not born sinless, nor was he divine. He was a carpenter, a man of humble station who probably felt as though he had a monumentally important task thrust upon him. I think St. Joseph’s role in Christ’s life beautifully displays the role of a Christian parent in their child’s life. Parents are ordinary people who are tasked with the care and raising of new life. Like Joseph, we do not own our children or have sole claim over them; they are their own people, entrusted to our care and guidance until they grow old enough to do God’s will without our assistance. It is a difficult task, and at times overwhelming to ponder. And yet there is St. Joseph, who was tasked with raising the very Son of God. Joseph shows us that we do not need to be perfect in our roles, only willing to be guided by God as we place our trust in Him.
Just as I strive to be like Mary in my vocation as a wife and mother, I pray that my husband will be like Joseph. St. Joseph is the ultimate husband and father, a faithful man of quiet strength, protector of Mary’s virginity, and guide of Christ’s earthly childhood. Above all, St. Joseph shows us the beauty of a life lived in obedience to God’s will.
Questions for Reflection: How can you grow closer to St. Joseph throughout this Lenten season? What can you learn from St. Joseph’s example of obedience and trust?