Weird St. Patrick’s Day Trivia: 10 Facts to Take to the Pub
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the backstory of St. Patrick’s Day (which celebrates the violent expulsion of serpents from Ireland) is significantly less gory than the backstory of St. Valentine’s Day (which celebrates love), but there’s still plenty of mayhem to interest the modern reader.
Who Was St. Patrick?: The Historical Accounts
Although St. Patrick was modern compared to St. Valentine (he definitely lived in the 5th century), we still aren’t sure whether he was one really busy guy or two guys with similar names who happened to be active at the same time. Historically, there are two existing documents attributed to St. Patrick, the Epistola (a letter to the soldiers of Coroticus) and a short autobiography called the Confessio (Declaration). According to the autobiography, a sixteen-year-old Briton named Maewyn Succat was kidnapped by Irish pirates, who took him to Ireland as a slave. During this period of slavery, Maewyn repented of his sins and converted to Christianity, later escaping back to his family in Britain, where he studied to become a cleric. Rather than stay in Britain, he took the religious name Patrick and headed back to Ireland as a missionary, eventually became a bishop, converted many to Christianity, and ordained other clerics in Ireland.
This British Patrick was significantly conflated with Palladius of Gaul (“Gaul” being France, more or less), who was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine in 431 and became the first “Bishop of the Christians in Ireland.” Some historical records refer to an “elder Patrick” and “younger Patrick,” but most of the accounts regarding “St. Patrick” date to more than a hundred years after the deaths of both men, so the details of who did what, exactly, are not considered highly reliable. But, either way, it’s interesting that St. Patrick wasn’t born Irish.
Who Was St. Patrick?: The Legendary Accounts
The “good stuff” version of St. Patrick has less to do with the holy visions that he experienced (warning him that his period of slavery was coming to an end and calling him back to Ireland) than with historically suspect accounts that have added to his legend as the centuries progressed:
- According to 7th century accounts, an implausibly warlike St. Patrick confronted hostile druids, cursed pagan kings and kingdoms, and violently destroyed idols.
- Sometime during the 7th-8th centuries, the Irish St. Columba was credited with banishing snakes from Ireland, but it wasn’t until the 13th century that we have records associating the event with St. Patrick. Jocelyn of Furness describes the event with enthusiasm: St. Patrick embarked on a 40-day fast, during which he was assaulted by snakes; using the power of prayer, St. Patrick chased them all into the sea.
- There is a competing 13th century account by Gerald of Wales in Topographia Hibernica, which expresses skepticism for this event; but Gerald was famously (insanely) anti-Irish, so his dismissal of St. Patrick was lumped together with “true” accounts of the barbaric Irish people and animals that would make the National Enquirer blush: the unnatural geese that grow from barnacles, the disappearing phantom island, the women who have an unholy fondness for goats, and so on. Good reading if you like weird Medieval slander.
(Gerald does, however, more plausibly note that most Irishmen wore undyed black wool, which further spoils the whole St.-Patrick-in-green imagery.)
- According to the 17th century Annals of the Four Masters, after Patrick’s death, his body inspired a conflict between the Airgíalla and the Uliad, who each wanted to take the saint’s body, but a very convenient miracle occurred and suddenly there seemed to be two bodies; each of the groups believed that they had the true body of St. Patrick and took it home to be buried with full honors.
- By the 18th century, St. Patrick was credited with using the shamrock (a three-leafed clover) to illustrate the holy Trinity (in which three are also one), and most modern depictions of St. Patrick include the shamrock as a symbol.
- BONUS TRIVIA: Technically, Patrick/Palladius was never canonized by a pope, so his “saint” designation is purely honorary.
St. Patrick’s Day Traditions
It’s obvious that nothing says “festivity” quite like cursed druids, drowned snakes, and multiplying corpses…but how has the holiday actually evolved?
- Back in the days of yore (“yore” being defined roughly as the 18th century), traditional St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland involved a commemorative Mass in the morning, followed by a formal family meal. Larger communities sometimes sponsored a solemn parade. This understated celebration was standard across Ireland, and, as recently as the 1970s, all of the local bars and pubs were closed for the formal feast day.
- Since the ‘70s, however, the colonial enthusiasm for the holiday finally ricocheted back to the homeland (basically, the Irish got tired of being out-Irished by everyone else), and riotous celebrations have since ensued with celebrations national and…extremely local.
- The “World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade” isn’t a title that you think would inspire serious thought (or any thought), but what started as a marketing campaign for the miniscule village of Dripsey, Ireland has turned into an international phenomenon. In Dripsey, the annual parade was held in the 25 yards between the town’s two pubs, the Weigh Inn and the Lee Valley Inn (reversing direction every other year, just to keep things interesting). This resulted in a Guinness Book of World Records entry for “Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade of the 20th Century.” But the closure of one Dripsey pub left the field wide open for new competition, and now “Shortest” St. Patrick’s Day Parades are popping up wherever two pubs can be found in close proximity (i.e. everywhere).
- Bearing in mind the fact that Australia spent a long time as a British penal colony, and the fact that many exiled prisoners were of Irish origins, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Australian St. Patrick’s Day started as a prison festivity in 1795.
- Over the next few decades, the Australian St. Patrick’s Day underwent a gradual gentrification, shifting from “boozy prison riot” to “formal dinner with colonial elite.” The modern incarnation is something of a compromise between the two—a bit of madness, and a bit of formality (expressed in parades, masses, etc.)
- Today, ignoring the feeble “Smallest St. Patrick’s Day Parade” honors, the entire city of Sydney hosts a massive gathering in Prince Alfred Park, connected by enthusiastic revelers to roughly 22 Irish pubs in the general vicinity. Why not?
- The first St. Patrick’s Day in the American colonies was celebrated in 1737, as a formal public event for wealthy Irish immigrants. It was apparently more “gala” than “pub brouhaha,” but it set an annual precedent for a public celebration rather than a private family communion.
- After the American Revolutionary War, far more Irish emigrated to the new world, and with the diversification of social classes came…what you might call a diversification in revelry. (In essence, it was a reverse of the Australian gentrification of St. Patrick’s Day.) March 17th became an excuse to get nostalgic about the old country, and (since nothing fires Irish nostalgia like a good whiskey) to drink copious quantities of alcohol while singing, dancing, and generally having a grand good time.
- Due to the Great Famine, the 19th century saw millions of Irish emigrating to the far corners of the earth, and a more formalized celebration of all things Emerald Isle at the municipal level in communities worldwide. Most famously, in 1962, the city of Chicago thought it would be an awesome idea to dye the entire Chicago River green for the span of a day. Because that’s what happens when scientists and public officials get involved in the same pub crawl.
So, to recap: St. Patrick wasn’t originally named Patrick, wasn’t born Irish, wasn’t a saint, probably wore a lot of black wool, and didn’t have anything to do with lucky four-leafed clovers (which, if you think about it, could probably be construed as blasphemous). On the other hand, Patrick almost certainly drank a lot of alcohol (which was considerably safer than water, in the good old Medieval days), so let’s all raise a glass in memory of St. Patrick!
P.S. What Did Happen to All of Those Snakes?
During the last ice age (roughly 10,000 years ago), cold-blooded reptiles of all kinds died out in the northern part of Europe. When it finally started to thaw out, Great Britain was connected to France by a small land bridge, but Ireland was already a true island. Snakes are very slow to migrate into new territory, so Great Britain only acquired three species of snakes before the land bridge closed (the adder, the grass snake, and the smooth snake), but since none of those species are great swimmers, Ireland has probably been snake-free for several millennia. So, St. Patrick may have cast his metaphorical snakes (sin/depression/doubt) into the ocean, but no actual reptiles were likely to have been harmed in the process.