by John A. Tvedtnes
March 17 is celebrated in Ireland and the United States as Saint Patrick’s day. But did you know that this was not his real name and that he wasn’t even Irish?
Born in A.D. 387 at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, Scotland, he was christened Maewyn Succat. His father, Calphurnius, was a member of a noble Roman family who held the office of decurio in Gaul (Britain). His mother, Conchessa, was a close relative of St. Martin of Tours.
At the age of sixteen, Maewyn was kidnapped by pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he served a Druid priest named Milchu. As a Christian he often prayed while tending his master’s sheep. According to his account, when six years had passed, an angel told him to leave Ireland. He escaped and returned to Britain, where he became a priest, living for a time at St. Martin’s monastery in Tours.
Prompted by a dream, he returned to Ireland to preach Christianity to the Celts. About A.D. 433, he was appointed Roman Catholic bishop of Ireland by Pope Celestine I, who gave him the Latin name Patricus, “countryman,” later spelled Patrick. Returning to Ireland, he paid a ransom to his former master and set about teaching. Tradition holds that St. Patrick performed a number of miracles in Ireland, of which one is especially remembered today. It is said that he chased all the serpents from the country.
St. Patrick died March 17 A.D. 461, which became his holy day in the Catholic calendar. Irish settlers made the day a nonreligious holiday and associated it with anything related to Ireland and the saint. The shamrock, a type of three-leafed clover, became associated with the day because St. Patrick had used it to illustrate the concept of the Trinity. Today, the largest celebration of his day is held in New York City, where the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in 1762. It wasn’t until 1995 that people in Ireland, influenced by their Irish-American cousins, began celebrating the day with parades, concerts, and fireworks.
The irony of St. Patrick’s day is not only that St. Patrick was not Irish, but also because his most famous miracle pales in comparison to the one performed by a real Irishman, St. Columba (521-597), during his mission to Scotland. St. Patrick may have rid Ireland of snakes, but St. Columba is credited with having chased the monster into Loch Ness!