The True Meaning of St. Patrick’s Day – Part 1 David Bailey, Diocese of Tyler

By: David Bailey

This is a two-part series on St. Patrick’s Day going into the life of Saint Patrick in Part I and addressing some of the myths surrounding his life and the origins of the different celebrations of the day in Part II .

WOO-HOOOOOO! IT’S SAINT-FREAKIN’-PADDY’S DAY (almost)!!!!! Let’s get some green beer, look for leprechauns, and drink ‘til we puke… in public…or not. Especially not. Definitely not!

I always wondered why people chose to celebrate a man who lived a pious life of fasting, penance, self-mastery and holiness by engaging in all the behaviors he would have preached against. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we shouldn’t celebrate. I do every year. On the day, I’ll definitely be looking for the Guinness, but in moderation (I hope).

As someone with a significant amount of Irish heritage (notice I didn’t say I was Irish) who spent several years living and traveling in Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day is one of my favorite—yet most cringe-worthy—events of the year.  I often find it difficult to endure all the stereotypes. It never fails that someone will offer me green beer or say something like, “Kiss me, I’m Irish,” or, “Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.” The most ridiculous thing is seeing non-Catholics wearing green (I’ll explain in Part II). Even worse is—to quote a friend of mine who may or may not attend Notre Dame and might, quite possibly be British—“The Americans who wear kilts, even though they are never worn in Ireland and in Scotland are only ever worn on formal occasions.”

Instead of complaining about what people get wrong with the day, I decided to clear up a few myths and set a few things straight. Let’s start with the man himself.

What if everything in your world came crashing down? Remember the Twin Towers on 911? Amplify that to the millionth degree. We can’t fathom how devastating it was for Roman citizens when the Fall of Rome occurred. For Saint Patrick, the fall affected him directly. Born at the end of the empire’s reign in the Roman colony of Banna Venta Berniae, the fall was so overwhelming to his settlement that it was completely erased from the map. Scholars today can only guess at where it was. No one knows for sure. It is believed that it was most likely on the coast of Scotland or the coast of Wales. Patrick was the son of Calpurnius, a Roman deacon, the grandson of Potitus who was a priest. Patricius, as he would have been called in Latin, or Padraig (pour-egg), as he would later be called in Ireland, lived in a time that saw the Roman Empire disappear.

As Barbarian hordes devastated Rome, colonies such as Patrick’s were ordered to return to Rome to help defend the city. Those who remained did so at their own peril. All military garrisons and soldiers evacuated their encampments to return and defend Rome. In their absence, bedlam broke out almost immediately, anarchy prevailed, and pirates had free reign over territories that were previously protected. Celtic invaders from Ireland began to raid the Welsh and Scottish coasts with impunity. Entire communities of Romans were taken as slaves.

One day, the boy who would become a saint woke up a free teenager without a care in the world. By the end of that day, he was bound, tied together with as many as twenty women and children, forced onto a boat, and put to sail on the frigid Irish Sea. According to his Confessions, he was 16. By his own account, Patrick was never interested in religion. Once he arrived in Ireland, he was forcefully marched—still tied to his fellow prisoners—until they arrived at a location where they were sold to the highest bidder. Just as we are unsure where St. Patrick’s home village was located, we are equally unsure where in Ireland he was sent after being purchased. We know that he was given the task of herding sheep.

For the next six years of his life he lived amongst his owner’s sheep herds. He spent most of his time on hillsides, in valleys, and near forests. It was a solitary existence. People who’ve never been to Ireland can’t understand how wet and cold the country is most of the time. Patrick would have been near freezing, soaked to the bone, and completely alone in a hostile land where he never wanted to be. It was in that state of misery that he began to do something he was never interested in doing back home. He began to pray.

He began to pray day and night, to pray without ceasing. He tells us in his Confessions that he would frequently rise before dawn, stand on the freezing hillsides, and pray out loud. It seems that his prayers became penitential prayers at some point. He began to sense that his slavery was of value to offer to God in reparation for his sins. He prayed, according to his Confessions, as many as one-hundred times a day over the six years of his captivity.

Finally, he was rewarded by God when he received instructions in a dream. The instructions were very detailed and led him out of captivity and back to his native land. There are many, many details that I’ll skip for the sake of time. The short version is this: he walked, ran, hid, and traveled by night until he reached a port, secured passage on a ship, and made it off the island of Ireland.

His conversion was genuine and he resolved to devote his entire life to the Church.  After finding his way home for a time, he made his way abroad. At some point he studied at the Cistercian abbey of Lérins under the tutelage of St. Honoratus, the founder of the abbey. How long he remained in the community of Lérins is uncertain. It is clear he left on good terms and with the blessing of the superiors. It is unclear when or where his ordination to the priesthood occurred. We don’t know if he was ordained before or after his time in Lérins. We are certain, however, that his ordination as bishop was performed by Pope Celestine.  

It is estimated that twenty years passed from the time he escaped captivity before he voluntarily returned to Ireland. The famous story of his decision to return came after a vision with a man named Victoricus who brought with him letters from the people who once held him captive. The letters in the hands of Victoricus were like voices crying out in the wilderness, calling out to him to go back to them. It is unclear how long he waited, but it is believed that he stalled for a while before deciding to go. I wonder why.

Patrick delayed before returning, and part of his delay was due to doubts about whether or not he was strong enough for the task. He questioned his abilities and was in a state of constant anxiety. He later wrote that, even on the night before leaving, he was crippled with apprehension over his perceived lack-of-fitness and unworthiness.

Here we leave the narrative just long enough to reflect on how much each and every one of us can identify with those feelings. Doubts, anxiety, feelings of unworthiness, questioning your strength, your abilities, your endurance… things every-single-one-of-us can identify with. We’ve all felt that way. Sometimes, we still do. Patrick was a human, long before being immortalized as the Catholic super hero who single handedly defeated Druids and sorcerers and converted an island of people who repeatedly tried to kill him. He was a frail human with doubts just like the rest of us. The fact that he overcame those doubts, returned to people he could easily have hated, and lived the rest of his life in a land he once fought to escape shows how extraordinary this ordinary man was.

Ask yourself this question. Could you have done what he did, honestly? Imagine the worst thing anyone has ever done to you. Imagine the evil of human sex trafficking. Contemplate how horrid sex slavery is and then think about the worst personal losses you’ve endured. Now picture a sixteen-year-old Patrick. He was forcefully taken from his entire family. He was only a boy. Can you imagine the anguish of his mother when she found out what happened to him? He was violently taken across the sea and sold into actual, literal, for-real slavery and made to freeze in the wet landscape of an unforgiving land surrounded by nothing but sheep and cruelty. There were no friendly faces, no comforting presence, and no consolation of any kind.

How long must he have shaken with cold and fear? How long must he have heaved deep, sorrowful sighs and cavernous gasps of grief? Thinking he would never see home again, never see his family again, never see his friends again, how many days, weeks, or months did his tears flow? They flowed until there were no more. His tears fell until they were transformed into prayer and his prayer was constant for six long years. In your wildest imagination, can you picture yourself willfully choosing to return to the people who did that to you? Amazingly, Patrick said yes to the call. I, for one, am grateful that he did. It is St. Patrick’s ‘yes’ that we are supposed to be celebrating on St. Patrick’s Day.

Why do we wear green on St. Patrick’s Day? Was Patrick the first Christian in Ireland, and did he really drive snakes out of the country? Did he actually use a shamrock to explain the Trinity? Did you know that the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was actually in America, not Ireland? I will answer all of these questions in Part II of this blog, which will appear on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day.

About the Author: David Bailey

David is in Second Pre-Theology studying for the Diocese of Tyler. He lived in Ireland before attending Notre Dame Seminary and is a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, America’s oldest Irish Catholic Fraternal Organization. The Order began in Ireland more than 450 years ago. Today the AOH exists in Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, Canada and America.


All opinions published by the authors on this blog are solely those of the authors. Although the goal is that they should, they do not necessarily express the views and opinions of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Notre Dame Seminary, the Church, or their respective dioceses and bishops.

Notre Dame Seminary and the Archdiocese of New Orleans are not responsible for the comments of commenters, although every effort will be made to remove offensive comments.

If you should find an error or offensive content, please email the NDS Blog editorial team.