Shamrocks for Saint Patrick March 11, 2002
Who Was St. Patrick?
Although it's not a national holiday in the United States, many communities across the country celebrate St. Patrick's Day with parades, festivals, and "wearing of the green." In fact, St. Patrick's Day parades are an American invention. The first parade honoring the day occurred in Boston in 1762. Over the years, parades and other celebrations on St. Patrick's Day became a way for Irish immigrants to remember their roots. Who was St. Patrick, and what is the meaning behind some well-known St. Patrick's Day legends?

While much of St. Patrick's life is clouded by legend, there are some generally agreed-upon facts. Most historians agree that he was born in Scotland or Wales around 370 A.D. and that his given name was Maewyn Succat. His parents, Calpurnius and Conchessa, were Romans living in Britain.

As a teenager, Maewyn was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd. It was during that time he began to have religious visions and dreams. In one dream, he was shown a way to escape from Ireland — by going to the coast and getting on a ship. After a perilous journey of hundreds of miles, he arrived at the coast and discovered a ship bound to Britain.

Back in Britain, Maewyn's dreams continued. In his spiritual autobiography, the Confessio, he told of a dream about a man named Victoricus, who came to him with letters from Ireland. In this vision, Maewyn writes:

    ...as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice...and this did they cry out as with one mouth: 'We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.'

Although these visions moved him, Maewyn didn't feel himself worthy of returning to Ireland in his non-believer state. So, he journeyed to France where he entered a monastery and began studying for the priesthood. At this time he changed his name to Patrick (meaning "father of his people" in Latin).

It was only after finding his true spiritual self that Patrick felt he could answer the call to return to Ireland to "care and labour for the salvation of others." He returned as a bishop around 432 A.D., traveled throughout Ireland spreading the word of God, and built churches and schools.

Patrick's humility, engaging personality, and knowledge of the social structure in Ireland helped his mission succeed. Eventually he made his headquarters at Armagh (in present-day Northern Ireland). By the time of his death on March 17 between 461 A.D. and 490 A.D., Ireland was almost entirely Christian. St. Patrick is Ireland's patron saint.

Celebrating in Ireland
In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day is both a national and religious holiday. Stores and offices are closed, but restaurants remain open. Many people attend church and offer special prayers. The holiday falls during Lent, a period when eating meat is forbidden, but the ban is lifted on St. Patrick's Day and families enjoy special meals with traditional Irish food.

Since 1995 the Irish government sanctioned festivals and other events on St. Patrick's Day as a way to increase tourism and show off Ireland to the rest of the world.

The official St. Patrick's Festival site has live video footage of the festival from Dublin Castle, as well as a complete guide to the events, parades, and fairs occurring in and around Dublin over the four-day celebration. The highlight will be a fireworks display on Saturday March 16, which typically attracts 500,000 people to Dublin city center.

The Legendary St. Patrick
There are numerous legends surrounding the life of St. Patrick. Here are some of the more familiar ones:

It is believed that in 441 A.D., St. Patrick fasted and prayed for 40 days at the summit of Croagh Patrick ("the Reek") in County Mayo. During this time, as blackbirds assaulted him, St. Patrick continued to pray and ring a bell as a proclamation of his faith. In answer to his prayers, an angel appeared to tell him that the Irish people would retain their Christian faith for all time. Today, more than 100,000 pilgrims visit the Reek annually to follow in St. Patrick's footsteps. Traditionally, pilgrims ascend the rocky trail barefoot.

It was while atop the mountain that St. Patrick drove all the snakes in Ireland to the sea. Historians generally agree that this myth serves as a metaphor for St. Patrick's good works. Since snakes are a common pagan symbol — and are not found in Ireland — this tale symbolizes St. Patrick's driving paganism out of Ireland.

Some believed that St. Patrick explained the concept of the Trinity in Christianity using a shamrock he found growing at his feet. More likely, the three-part leaf was worn by the people of Ireland as a symbol of the cross. It is assumed, however, that St. Patrick knew about the significance of the shamrock in other religious and pagan traditions, and may have incorporated it into his explanations and teachings.

It's Your Lucky Day
Need a little luck? There are three good-luck traditions associated with St. Patrick's Day:

The Shamrock
The green shamrock (trefoil or seamair Óg) is the national symbol of Ireland, but this member of the legume family may be white, red, or yellow. The Druids, ancestors of the modern Irish people, believed in the holiness of the trefoil because of a sacred symbol formed by its three leaves. The number three figures prominently in other religions, too. To Christians its leaves form a cross and serve to represent the Trinity. It was thought that followers of St. Patrick wore a shamrock on his feast day.

Legend also has it that snakes avoid trefoil, and that it is a remedy for snake and scorpion bites.

A traditional blessing:
For each petal on the shamrock
This brings a wish your way
Good health, good luck, and happiness
For today and every day.

1. Find a four-leaf clover: The Druids believed that a four-leaf clover could help in spotting witches or other demons. Some modern-day spiritualists claim that a four-leaf clover releases energy and helps one's judgment. Yet others feel that finding a four-leaf clover brings good fortune, not just on St. Patrick's Day.

Normally, the clover plant produces the familiar "segmented" leaf with three parts. However, botanists believe that if a young clover leaf is damaged or exposed to certain chemicals, then it produces a four-leaf clover.

  • To understand more about mutations, look at these Biology Explorer Molecular Biology activities: Natural Mutations explores how a "mispairing" in the gene sequence causes mutations in offspring. Chemical Mutagens shows that chemicals can introduce mutations into DNA.

2. Wear green: This color represents Ireland (the "Emerald Isle"), the shamrock, and spring. It is as closely associated with St. Patrick's Day as red is with Valentine's Day. Many schoolchildren and others — Irish or not — wear green on St. Patrick's Day.

3. Kiss the Blarney Stone: This famous stone is set in one of the walls in the tower of the Blarney Castle. It's thought that an old woman cast a spell on the stone as a reward to the king for saving someone from drowning. Under the spell, the king spoke eloquently. According to legend, kissing the Blarney Stone brings the kisser "persuasive eloquence" ("blarney").

Because of the stone's location, it's no easy feat to kiss it. One must bend over backwards and hold onto a metal bar.

A Wee Bit about Leprechauns
Fairies fill Irish folklore. These make-believe creatures can assume various human or animal forms. They love music and may even lead humans astray with their pipe playing and singing. Irish fairies fall into two main groups: sociable and solitary. Perhaps the best known of the solitary fairies are the leprechauns.

Leprechauns have the distinction of being the most solitary of the solitaries, avoiding contact with humans, other fairies, and even other leprechauns! These two-foot tall, unfriendly, gruff men (there are no female leprechauns) prefer to pass their time making shoes for other fairies. They usually wear a green coat, a green hat, and a shoemaker's apron.

More Links
This Irish folklore site details different types of sociable and solitary fairies.

Learn about the origins and categories of fairies.

Due to their thrifty nature, they are trusted to guard fairy treasures and hide their pots of gold very carefully. But rainbows and the sound of a shoemaker's hammer provide humans with clues as to the whereabouts of a leprechaun and his hidden treasure.

According to legend, if you catch a leprechaun, you can force him to tell you where he hides his treasure. But there's a "catch": if you look away from him for even a second — and he will try to trick you into doing so — he'll disappear, taking his treasure with him!

    May the leprechauns be near you
    To spread luck along your way.
    And may all the Irish angels
    Smile upon you St. Patrick's Day.

Beannachtai na feile Padraig
Happy St. Patrick's Day

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