St. Patrick's Day is that one day of the year when everybody is Irish, or at least pretends to be. But what does that actually entail? When it comes to St. Patrick's Day history, the US has all kinds of traditions that, frankly, aren't even Irish. Who was Saint Patrick anyway? And what myths and legends about this Irish holiday have we all been blindly thinking are true for years? This list of St. Patrick's Day facts will separate myth from reality and let you in on how this green (or maybe blue?!) holiday is really celebrated in Ireland.
You might be surprised to know that if you were an actual Irish person living in Ireland even a few decades ago, it would involve not shenanigans and drinking green beer, but solemn prayer and abstaining from alcohol. And you certainly wouldn't be going to a parade, picking four-leaf clovers or hanging out with leprechauns. And the namesake of the holiday, Ireland's patron saint... wasn't actually Irish (or even British!).
Shocked? Surprised? Jonesing for a Guinness? It's okay, you just need to get the facts straight about what's real and what's pop culture myth when it comes to this leprechaun-laden holiday. Upvote the most interesting St. Patrick's Day trivia below!
THE MYTH: St. Patrick was Irish.
THE REALITY: Though one of Ireland’s great icons, Patrick himself wasn’t Irish. In fact, we know little of Patrick’s life except from two letters that are generally attributed to him. What we do know is that he was born somewhere in the British Isles (where exactly depends on which account you read) circa 390 and didn’t come to the Emerald Isle until he was 16. That’s when he was kidnapped and enslaved by Irish pirates.
He was brought to Ireland and held as a slave for six years, with traditional accounts saying he was a shepherd. He eventually escaped after claiming to have heard a heavenly voice and fled to England, where he continued the religious awakening that began during his escape.
THE MYTH: St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland.
THE REALITY: In 431, Pope Celestine is said to have sent a bishop named Palladius “to the Irish believing in Christ.” Patrick didn’t come back to Ireland until a year later, in 432. This would indicate that there was already an active, if possibly small, Christian community there. In fact, Palladius actually fits into some theories about Patrick’s life – namely, that the modern version of St. Patrick is an amalgam of the two men.
THE MYTH: St. Patrick drove out the snakes from Ireland.
THE REALITY: In all probability, Ireland probably never had snakes to begin with. Before the last Ice Age, Ireland was simply too cold for snakes to survive, then when the glaciers receded, it left the land an island, impossible for snakes to reach. Fossil records from the country corroborate this, as no evidence of snakes has ever been found among the animals living there.
The legend that Patrick stood on an Irish hillside and delivered a thundering sermon that drove the island’s serpents into the sea is probably just an allegory for his eradication of pagan ideology – with snakes standing in for the serpents of Druid mythology.
THE MYTH: St. Patrick used the three-leaf clover to explain the Holy Trinity to Irish pagans.
THE REALITY: The parable of the three-leaf clover standing in for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost is one of the things that’s pretty hard to prove either way. What we do know is that clovers were already important in paganism, with their green color representing rebirth. Three was also an important number in paganism, and in ancient religions in general, with a number of “triple deities” represented in everything from Hindu mysticism to Sumerian gods. So if Patrick did use the clover to explain the Trinity, he already had some of the heavy lifting done for him.