Saint Patrick: Who Was That Green Man?

Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick. Who was that green man? Chances are that St. Patrick would be rolling around in his grave at the news that 73 people at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst were arrested during a ‘Blarney Blowout’ pre-Saint Patrick’s Day Party. At least four police officers were injured when student revelers pelted them with bottles, beer cans and snowballs. A drunken donnybrook, however, according to Irish historians, is not symbolic of Saint Patrick or Saint Patrick’s Day, which is coming up on March 17. But just who was St Patrick and why is his day akin to a national holiday?

Every year cities around the world gear up for Saint Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations on March 17. As in years past, it will be an excuse for many to skip work and school, march in a parade, wear something green, and, yes, drink far more than they should. But just how many revelers know anything about Saint Patrick and Saint Patrick’s Day aside from that fact that people don green and get inebriated.

Saint Patrick was born in the 5th Century in Britain, then part of the Roman Empire. Technically, he was not even Irish.

At 16, Saint Patrick was shanghaied by Irish highwaymen and spent six years in captivity. He returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary and died on March 1, in the year 461. He devoted his life to peace and helping people.

He was barely a blip on the radar screen for a long time until lore and mythos began to grow about him. Centuries later he was named the patron saint of Ireland.

One of the legends surrounding Saint Patrick was that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland. But Ireland has no snakes due to its climate. The Emerald Isle is surrounded by water and it is too cold to allow snakes to migrate there from Britain or anywhere else. The myth probably symbolized his efforts to drive out pagans from the country.

Another myth is that Saint Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the three parts of the Holy Trinity. As a result, folks in Ireland began wearing shamrocks on March 17 to signify their Christian commitment and pride. That tradition morphed into wearing an item of green clothing.

The custom of Saint Patrick’s Day Parades, in fact, started in the United States, not Ireland. The great potato famine of the 1840’s sent hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to America, particularly Boston and New York.

The first notation of a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade dates to 1762 when a bunch of Irish soldiers serving with the British marched a few blocks to a tavern in lower Manhattan. Today New York features the longest and largest Saint Patrick’s Day Parade drawing close to 200,000 participants and nearly three million spectators.

Unfortunately, aside from the color green, the activity most associated with Saint Patrick’s Day is drinking. Interestingly, from 1930 to 1970 in Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day was a religious holiday meaning that no pubs were open. That law was overturned in 1970 when Saint Patrick’s Day was reclassified as a national holiday and the beer flowed freely again.

As Saint Patrick’s Day approaches, parade organizers are hoping that revelers will keep the more Christian spirit of Saint Patrick and party and parade peacefully, unlike the students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Organizers hope that merrymakers will talk about Saint Patrick and who that green man was rather than creating a green melee.

Opinion by Jim McCullaugh

Sources:

Time
Boston Herald
Washington Post
National Geographic

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