Who Was St. Patrick’s Day Named After, And Why Do We Celebrate It In 21st Century America?

“Who was St. Patrick’s Day named after?” might be an embarrassing query if you’ve been celebrating the holiday your entire life, but plenty of people wonder about the history of the mid-March holiday that’s become synonymous with emerald-toned debauchery.

Part of the reason for the lack of knowledge about who St. Patrick’s was is due to a lack of information about him in general. Marion Casey of New York University’s Irish Studies program told Time that, really, researchers don’t know much about him at all that isn’t based on legend.

“We know that he was a Roman citizen, because Britain was Roman then, and then he was enslaved and taken to Ireland, where he either escaped or was released, and then he became a priest and went back to Ireland, where he had a lot of luck converting the Druid culture into Christians.”

Perhaps the most surprising part of who St. Patrick was is the fact that he wasn’t actually Irish. Born to wealthy Roman parents living in Britain around the 4th century, he was actually abducted by Irish raiders at the age of 16 and condemned to a life of slavery in Ireland. Haunted by a voice that told him to escape, he eventually broke free six years later. Folklore says that it was partially because of this experience that he became a man of God in his home of England afterward, according to Philip Freeman, author of St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography.

“It was just horrible for him, but he got a religious conversion while he was there and became a very deeply believing Christian.”

Legend also says that St. Patrick was not actually his original name, perhaps because Maewyn Succat Day doesn’t really have a great ring to it. Reportedly, he changed it to Patrick to mean “father figure,” but it can also mean “nobleman.”

Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day named after and why

The man now named St. Patrick returned to the land where he was held captive to minister and established himself into the canon of saints in the process. How exactly he managed to get an entire day and feast named after him is hazy, but some of St. Patrick’s most impressive moments might give you an idea. Among his storied accomplishments were driving all the snakes from the Irish isle and using a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. The latter detail was how he became linked to the color green.

These more positive views of St. Patrick, however, aren’t without their critics. The University of Cambridge’s Dr. Roy Flechner of the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic department believes these are just trappings of a saintly recreation. It’s much more likely, he argues, that St. Patrick’s Day is the celebration of a man who fled his home to avoid becoming a Decurion, or tax collector — a hated position he would have inherited from his father.

“[Escaping slavery] is [just] how he wanted to be remembered… [such people] had no legal status and could be killed or recaptured by anyone. The probability that Patrick managed to cross from his alleged place of captivity in western Ireland back to Britain undetected, at a time when transportation was extremely complicated, is highly unlikely… Other commentators draw attention to the similarities between Patrick’s story and Exodus 21:2, which stipulated that slaves must be freed after six years.”

While St. Patrick’s Day has been a feast in Ireland for centuries, the holiday is more accurately linked to Irish-American culture. The feast massively grew in popularity with the ethnic minority in their new country and only became a fixture of Ireland in the 1970s.

Who St. Patrick's Day and why celebrate it in America

As it turns out, “Who was St. Patrick’s Day named after?” is a question with a multifaceted, and somewhat unclear, answer, but now you’ll have something to debate with your bartender about while you’re celebrating Maewyn Succat’s death.

[Photo by Andreas F. Borchert/Wikipedia and Scott Barbour/Getty Images]