Remembering the real story of St. Patrick

Written By Mick Stinelli, Columnist

This weekend, thousands will line the streets of Downtown to witness the St. Patrick’s Day parade. For 250 years, Pittsburgh has hosted one of the country’s biggest parades in honor of the patron saint of Ireland. Festivities usually include drinking green beer, dressing in green, wearing plastic shamrocks – just as St. Paddy envisioned it. (Yes, it’s Paddy, not Patty; he was a man, not a burger.)

As we gather around the bars this weekend, it’s unlikely many of us will be discussing the life of the man we celebrate. For many, St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday to honor Irish heritage more generally. Patrick, however, wasn’t from Ireland.

Patricius, as he called himself, was born in Britain sometime in the fifth century. According to his writings, he wasn’t actively religious. When he was 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland, where he remained for six years. He worked as a shepherd and began praying regularly. In time, he heard voices.

One night he heard a voice saying he would return to Britain, then “after a very short time, I heard the answer [of God] saying to me, ‘Lo, thy ship is ready.”

He returned home and studied Christianity further. After a few years, he had a vision of a man with letters approaching him. As he opened a letter titled “The Voice of the Irish,” he heard the voices of the people of the Emerald Isle, saying, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

It was then that he returned to Ireland, where he would spend the rest of his life as a missionary. He claimed to have baptised thousands, and made enemies with local royalty by refusing their gifts.

After his death, the Irish perpetuated many legends, most of which are probably false. One states that he used the shamrock as a parable for the Holy Trinity, though this story doesn’t appear until hundreds of years after his death.

A more hardcore tale has him fasting for 40 days atop a hill, after which he is attacked by snakes. After this, he banishes all of the snakes from Ireland. However, there is no evidence that there were ever any snakes in Ireland following the Ice Age.

So what did Patrick really do? He effectively, and nearly single handedly, converted Ireland from a pagan state into a Christian nation. But he didn’t do so by forcing the native Irish to give up their Celtic traditions. Instead, he incorporated those traditions into his Christian teachings, making the religion more palatable to newcomers.

It’s an odd legacy to have in a religion which is so often associated with coercion, such as the forced conversion of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

That a slave boy should be freed, only to return to the island of his captivity, is a story in itself. That he should return not with vengeance, but with compassion and a desire to share the knowledge he had acquired is, well, saintlike.

When we gather in the streets this St. Patrick’s day, we should not only celebrate the legacy of Irish-American culture, but the legacy of the titular man of the holiday. Remember his compassion, and his willingness to accept and tolerate different cultures.

Lo, thy ship is ready.