BUCKHANNON — Every year in the month of March, people of Irish descent from around the world gather to celebrate their heritage and honor a man who died 1,560 years ago.
St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was born c. AD 386 on the island of Great Britain, though where precisely is not known. According to tradition, he was born Maewyn Succat and was captured by Irish pirates at age 16. He was sold into slavery in Ireland and became fluent in the Irish language and culture while herding sheep; he was also given the Irish name Padraig (Patrick.)
After six years, Patrick is said to have heard a voice urging him to escape captivity and travel to a distant port where a ship would be waiting to take him back to Britain. With difficulty, Patrick persuaded the captain to let him aboard. After three days sailing, they landed, presumably in Britain, but became lost on foot in the wilderness.
After walking for 28 days and becoming faint from hunger, Patrick urged the crew to put their faith in God and pray for sustenance. Shortly thereafter, they encountered a herd of wild boar. Patrick eventually returned to his family, now in his early twenties, and continued studying Christianity.
Patrick recounts having a vision a few years after returning home, wherein the people of Ireland called out to him and urged him to return and teach them about God. After obtaining an education in France and being ordained as a priest, Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary. Even though he wasn’t always welcome in some places—on one account, he was beaten, robbed, and put in chains—by and large, his mission was successful.
He is said to have baptized thousands of people and ordained priests who would establish other churches and communities in Ireland. Many legends sprung up around him over time: that he drove the snakes from Ireland (though in fact, there weren’t any snakes there to begin with), that his walking stick grew into a living tree, or that he used the shamrock, the most Irish of plants, to illustrate the concept of three persons (the Holy Trinity) in one God.
Patrick died c. AD 461, around age 75, after spreading the Gospel in Ireland for nearly 30 years. The date of his death, traditionally accepted to be March 17, would serve as the foundation of his feast day many centuries later. Patrick would be venerated locally as a saint as early as 200 years after his death, but was not formally canonized and given a feast day until the early 1600s.
Being an important figure in both Catholic and Orthodox tradition, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated even in countries where there is not a significant Irish population. The first known celebration of the saint in what is now the United States occurred in 1600 in St. Augustine, Florida, held by Spanish missionaries.
Eventually, St. Patrick’s Day was declared a public holiday in Ireland in 1903, and celebrations, both religious and secular, spread across the world as the 20th Century progressed.
Nowadays, common traditions include Irish music and dance, parades, wearing shamrocks or the color green, and perhaps a trip to the pub, since Lenten restrictions on drinking alcohol are lifted.
What began as a day venerating the work of an Irish saint on the anniversary of his death has since grown into a worldwide celebration of Irish culture and heritage. Whether it’s celebrated with a church service, a parade, or a drink between friends, St. Patrick’s Day serves to show the influence of Irish culture across the world as well as the impact one person can have on history, no matter how humble their beginnings.