St. Patrick, Snakes, Shamrocks, and Other Irish Myths

Saint Patrick’s Day is coming up!! Woohoo!! This is one of our favorite holidays because it represents a significant portion of our heritage, but, honestly, we pretty much celebrate our ancestry whenever we get the opportunity. We are also history buffs and love to know the history behind every holiday.

There was much debate in the house as to whether or not I should actually post this article. See, we have a LOT of friends who are history buffs too, and most of them have a similar heritage. Mr. Cozy Cottage told me, “You better make sure you’ve got your facts straight, because it’s going to be our friends, not your readers, who are going to eat you alive if you’re wrong!”

Well, sir, I have done a ton of research, and when you get past a certain point in time, things tend to get a little fuzzy. So, I’ve included only the things that I’ve been able to establish as definite.

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I’m sure we have all heard the reason we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day – there was this Irish dude named Patrick who stood on a hill and made a great speech and drove the snakes out of Ireland and was made a saint. Well, that’s not exactly how it went down. Let’s take a deeper look, shall we?

Patrick, believe it or not, wasn’t even Irish. Get that! He was born around AD 390 in Britain. And he may not have been British. At the time, the British Isles were under Roman control, and his family is thought to have been part of the Roman aristocracy. His family was Christian, but he was unreligious growing up. Some say he was an atheist, but we’ll just go with “un-practicing” since that part can’t be said for sure. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped and sold as a slave. For 6-7 years, he tended sheep in Ireland. During that time, he had a religious conversion and turned again to his Christian heritage. One myth states that in a dream, a voice told him to escape (I’m not sure it would have taken voices to convince me to do that). He managed to get passage on a pirate ship heading for Britain and was reunited with his family. This was actually pretty impressive, though, because no one had ever escaped before. Think of it as Alcatraz; it should be the perfect prison because it’s an island surrounded by icy water. He became an ordained priest, and then later a bishop. He had another dream with a disembodied voice that commanded him to go back to Ireland, where he spent the rest of his life trying to convert the pagans of Ireland to Christianity. He died on March 17, AD 461.

Tidbit of info, he may not even be named “Patrick.” There are two documents that are known to be his where he signed his name in Latin as “Patricius,” but there are other accounts that say his name was actually Maewyn Succat.

So, what about the snakes?

Sure, we can say that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, because as we know today there are clearly no snakes in Ireland. Well, that’s only partly true. There were never any snakes in Ireland. The island country has been surrounded by those icy water since around the time of the last Ice Age, and before that it was covered in ice. The climate is very unpleasant to snakes, and there would be no way for them to swim from other countries through the water. Most of the stories from the legend of St. Patrick were written by well-meaning monks about 600 years after his death, so I’m sure they were embellished just a bit. In religion, especially Christianity, snakes symbolize evil. So the snake story is likely symbolic of St. Patrick driving the pagan ways out of Ireland. That was actually pretty successful. Because of the works St. Patrick  and others put into place, the majority of Ireland was converted to Christianity in 200 years.

Where do shamrocks fit in?

There is some debate on which clover is real or fake, but since most clover varieties in Ireland actually are native to all of Europe, they tend to just go with any 3-leaved variety. It is said that St. Patrick used the clover to explain the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost to those silly pagans. Actually, there aren’t any records of him doing this, so you’ve got to point to those storytelling monks again. So why are they so popular? They’ve always symbolized the rebirth of Spring, but in the 17th century it took on a whole new meaning. Ireland had been seized by the English. They made laws against speaking anything but English and Irish culture was essentially outlawed. Wearing a shamrock was kind of a small “suck it” gesture to show not only their displeasure at their English rule, but also their pride in their heritage.

Another myth is leprechauns. I dare you to go to one St. Patrick’s Day parade and not one a slutty leprechaun, because nothing is sexier that a woman dressed as a tiny, cranky, bearded man with a cane. Actually, there were no female leprechauns. That had to be pretty interesting as to how they reproduced. They were renowned to be grumpy little buggers, but I’d be a little crotchety too if y sole job was to repair all the other fairies’ shoes!

So, there you have it, the truth about a few St. Patrick’s Day myths! Stay tuned this week for some more Irish themed articles!!!

 

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