The History of St. Patrick's Day
By Dan O'Donnell
WTMJ-TV and JSOnline.com
updated 5:02 a.m. ET, Tues., March. 17, 2009
We may all be a little bit Irish today, but how many of us know how St. Patrick’s Day began? How many of us know who the real St. Patrick really was?
“Well he was not a leprechaun who drank green beer or had a blarney stone or a pot of gold,” explains historian William Federer, who wrote St. Patrick: The Real History of His Life, From Tragedy to Triumph. “He was actually a missionary and he converted 120,000 druids from paganism to Christianity.”
In fact, Federer contends that in the fifth century A.D., Patrick did more than perhaps anyone in history to spread this new religion through Europe.
“He started over 300 churches and used the three-leafed clover to teach the [Holy] Trinity,” Federer says, noting that this teaching tool is now the symbol of St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland itself.
Patrick himself, though, was actually born in nearby Wales.
“Different Viking tribes began attacking and carrying away slaves, and Patrick was one of those carried away as a slave to Ireland,” says Federer. “He was there from 16 years old to 22 years old, when he had a dream in which he heard the Lord tell him to escape. So he did.”
“He went to the shore and, sure enough, there was a boat. He hopped aboard and hitchhiked his way across Europe and made his way back to Britain. His life was pretty uneventful until he was 40 years old, when he had another dream. That’s when things started to get interesting.”
That was when Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary.
“His style was evangelism was to walk right into the smoky dens of these chieftans. The druids knew that this new religion was going to displace them, and so they tried killing him at least a dozen times. Once he was held for two weeks, and [the druid ruler] was holding him to kill him.”
But the chieftan instead spared Patrick and even gave him money to build his first church. For the rest of his life, Patrick preached about Jesus Christ, spread Christianity across the British Isles, and spoke out against slavery. Some historians even call him the world’s first abolitionist!
The Roman Catholic Church made him a saint in 664 A.D.
“It wasn’t until 1846, when there was a potato famine in Ireland, and millions of Irish Catholics came to America,” Federer says. “The Irish population went from two percent to 20 percent in just a decade. Half of New York City was now Roman Catholic Irish! The same thing happened in Boston, and there was an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish backlash.”
“When they had their first parade, it was more of a political statement. In Ireland, it didn’t matter how many of them there were, they didn’t have a voice in Parliament. But in America, when they had their first parade and 15,000 of them showed up, politicians in New York City said, ‘wait a minute, they haven’t decided who to vote for yet,’ so they decided to march with them.”
From those early parades, St. Patrick’s Day gained popularity as the Irish immigrants who celebrated it gained acceptance until finally both became the indispensible parts of American culture that they are today.