St Patrick: The Allegory Of The Snakes, And Other Half-Truths

St. Patrick

St. Patrick is widely known as the patron saint of Ireland, is celebrated for having driven snakes from the Emerald Isle, and is the reason we don as much green as possible each March 17, and compare our Irishness while imbibing on Guinness or beer dyed disgustingly green. But just who was St. Patrick, really?

St. Patrick’s Irish descent:

St. Patrick is probably the most well-known, and honored Irish citizen. But was he actually Irish?

The Truth: Maewyn Succat is the real name behind Ireland’s most favored saint. He was actually born in Britain, to parents of Roman descent, and was kidnapped by Irish pirates when he was 16 years old, and sold into slavery in Ireland. After seven years, he became the first person to ever escape slavery in Irish history, and he headed back home to Britain. Eventually though, after claiming to heed the word of God who spoke to him in his dreams, he returned to Ireland as a missionary.

St. Patrick and the snakes:

The most commonly believed story surrounding Patrick is that he is celebrated for having rid Ireland of its snakes by standing on a hilltop, waving his staff, and driving them all into the ocean.

The Truth: Ireland is an island. There aren’t, nor have there ever been snakes there, and unless some misguided pet-owner decided to try and rectify that by releasing his own snakes into the wild, there likely never will be. The story of the snakes is an allegory. In Christianity, snakes are the embodiment of evil, and in the tale of St. Patrick and the snakes, they are actually a metaphor for the non-Christian (i.e. Pagan) population of Ireland. By “driving the snakes out of Ireland”, what Patrick actually did was rid the Irish populace of their Pagan ways, by converting them to Christianity. It’s for this reason that to this day, some Pagans will wear a snake on their person on St. Patrick’s Day, to protest one religion being abolished in favor of another one.

St. Patrick’s true colors:

Everyone knows it’s tradition to wear as much green as humanly possible, drink green beer, or temporarily dye your hair (or your river, if you’re Chicago) green on St. Patrick’s Day, because green was Patrick’s, and Ireland’s color, right? Wrong.

The Truth: St. Patrick was originally associated with the color blue, not green. In artworks, he is depicted as wearing blue robes, King Henry VIII, when designing a flag to represent Ireland, used the Irish harp in gold, on a bed of blue, and there are actually several shades of blue called ‘St. Patrick’s Blue’. The Irish Special Forces still wear uniforms in the color of St. Patrick’s Blue to this day. Christina Mahony, director of Catholic University’s Center for Irish Studies in Washington, D.C., believes the confusion of the two colors probably comes from the phrase “the wearing of the green,” meaning to wear a shamrock on one’s person.

St Patrick

St. Patrick and the shamrock:

The legend of the shamrock goes that the leaves stand for faith, hope, and love (and in the case of the four-leaf clover, God added an extra leaf for luck), and that they are celebrated as part of St. Patrick’s Day, because they are in abundance in Ireland. While that might be partially true, it might not be the only reason.

The (alleged) Truth: Though there is no evidence of this, the widely believed story goes that during his missionary work in Ireland, a group of Druids approached St. Patrick and told him that they were having a hard time understanding the concept of the Holy Trinity. After a moment of thought, St. Patrick bent down and picked a three-leaf clover, and presented it to the Druids, using it to explain the idea of the three-in-one father, son, and holy spirit. The skeptical Druids were so taken aback by the simplicity of this explanation, that they converted on the spot, and thus the shamrock became an honored symbol of Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Day Festivities:

March 17 is the one day of the year that everyone is Irish, and so it is spent the way it’s believed the Irish spend it – drunkenly proclaiming your Irishness, while watching a parade of floats and bagpipers go by.

The Truth: St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, so up until the 1970s, in Ireland all bars and pubs were actually closed on this most holy of drinking holidays. As for the parades that we all love, well, those were started in the United States, not Ireland, by Irish immigrants, who were missing their home, and being treated incredibly poorly in their new land, because “they remembered the old country and wanted to have a day that they could be proud of,” explains Philip Freeman, a Classics professor at Luther College in Iowa.

“It’s spread way beyond being a religious holiday or even being an Irish holiday and it’s just now, I think, the chance to celebrate the end of a long, cold winter, and to drink a lot of beer”

So this St. Patrick’s Day, while you’re sporting your “kiss me, I’m Irish” buttons, and proudly waving your green, white, and gold, give a cheers for St. Patrick, because while he might not actually be Irish, without him, you’d have nothing to celebrate.

[Photo Credit: Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images ]