The True Meaning of St. Patrick’s Day – Part 2 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 .

Rumors, like snakes, must be driven into the sea. Patrick is often portrayed as leading the snakes out of Ireland and into the ocean. Of course, Ireland never had any snakes to begin with, so this is obviously false. I suggest, however, that it is neither literally true nor factually false but analogous. It wasn’t a matter of multiple snakes he drove out of Ireland, it was a matter of one single snake and we all know that snake’s name. Druids did unspeakable things in their ceremonies, truly unspeakable things. I’ve had the misfortune of hearing details about some such things and I wish I could un-hear and un-remember all of it. Suffice it to say, evil was alive and well in Ireland until Saint Patrick sent the dragon and his minions packing.

Patrick was by no means the first Christian to travel to Ireland. What separates him from the others, aside from how long he stayed, was his success rate. After engaging in spiritual warfare with the leading Druids, he attracted a steady stream of followers, including former Druids (some of whom became some of the first monks in Ireland), baptized people by the hundreds, and established the Archbishopric of Armagh, which still exists to this day.

Saint Patrick obviously loved the Holy Trinity. He was strongly Trinitarian. The beginning of his famous Breastplate (prayer) gives us a glimpse into this fact:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Through belief in the Threeness
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation…

There is no doubt that Patrick had a strong belief in the Holy Trinity. However, it is completely false that he ever used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. It is widely believed, even by some academics, but it isn’t true. YES, I’ve seen St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies and, NO, I don’t think it’s funny. Primarily because it’s something he never said. It was 1,200+ years after his death (there is debate on whether he died in 460 or 493) before we find the first account of him comparing the Trinity with a shamrock. The first recorded version was written by a botanist named Caleb Threlkeld in 1726, long after numerous biographies were written. None of them, not even the most embellished hagiographies, mention the shamrock as a teaching tool. Neither did St. Patrick mention doing so in his Confessions, the autobiographical account of his life.

We have to ask ourselves this question: if none of the resources available to Threlkeld mentioned the shamrock story, where did he get his information? It is an absolute fact that none of the pre-existing accounts of the Life of Patrick mention the story. So, where did Threlkeld get his information some 1,200+ years later? There is only one logical answer, and that is creative license. Like the story of running the snakes out of the country, the Trinitarian shamrock is the result of more than a thousand years of exaggerated story-telling around hearths and on hillsides. There is only symbolic truth with the snakes, and none with the shamrock. The shamrock is still significant, however, but for all-together different reasons.

26 of the 32 counties of Ireland are an independent republic with no connection with Britain. The Republic of Ireland is not a part of the United Kingdom (no, it’s not). However, that was not always the case. Back when Henry VIII got mad at the pope and decided to start his own church, this impacted the whole of the British Empire. As Ireland was, at that time, part of the empire, their monasteries, churches and cathedrals were confiscated. Nothing makes the Irish more determined to do something than telling them not to do it. Banning the Catholic Church, making it illegal to attend Mass, and imposing very oppressive religious laws made the Irish cling resolutely to their faith. Every year for the Feast of Saint Patrick, in tribute to the man who brought the faith to the island, people wore a shamrock or a bit of green to say “I’m Catholic,” or more accurately, “I’m still Catholic.” It wasn’t obvious enough to attract unwanted attention, but was noticeable to those in-the-know to recognize. This is where the tradition of wearing green began and it’s why I find it hilarious when I see Protestants wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day. Why do we “pinch” those not wearing green? The only people not wearing green were those who abandoned their faith.

For ages, the color associated with Patrick was blue. In fact, there is a shade of blue known as ‘St. Patrick’s Blue’. He’s most often seen in green, though, and it’s easy to understand why. Descriptions such as the ‘Forty Shades of Green,’ or ‘The Emerald Isle,’ were coined for good reason. Ireland is a very green island. Plus, there are a lot of shamrocks there. Hence, St. Patrick is often seen holding a shamrock, partially because the Trinitarian teaching story has been around long enough—and repeated often enough—that it’s believed to be true. The other, more basic reason is that the shamrock has long been a symbol of Ireland. Along with the harp—which is the older, more traditional symbol—the shamrock is widely associated with the country. The trick with iconography is to provide visual clues that hint at the identity of the saint being depicted. When you go into a church with a row of stain-glass windows and come to an image of a white-bearded man with miter and crosier, wearing green and holding a shamrock, you immediately know it’s Saint Patrick. Despite a few inaccuracies, it makes perfect sense for green and the shamrock to be attached to St. Patrick’s image.  

As a predominately Catholic country, the Irish celebrated the life of St. Patrick on his feast day every year on March 17. There is a written account from as far back as 1681 from an Englishman named Thomas Dineley who observed a St. Patrick’s Day celebration (including the wearing of the green) during his travels to Ireland. The way they celebrated, however, differs widely from how it is celebrated now. St. Patrick’s Day, as we know it today, is a product of Irish-Americans.

Irish immigrants found themselves in growing communities of their fellow countrymen in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and so on. In the northeast, there were also large populations of Italian immigrants. Several times a year, the Italians would pour out of Mass and onto the streets to parade through town and spend the day celebrating various Italian saints. Their neighboring Irish communities began to do the same. The feasts of St. Brigid, St. Columba (Colmcille), and St. Patrick offered an occasion for homesick Irish to celebrate their homeland, their culture, and their saints. It is important to point out that all of this, for both the Italians and the Irish, began with Mass. Today, St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of Irish culture. I would argue that it is most often reduced to a celebration of Irish stereotypes in which few go to Mass and even Protestants wear green. Nevertheless, the intention is, or was, to celebrate Irish pride while commemorating the feast of the man dubbed The Apostle of Ireland.

The first ever St. Patrick’s Day parade occurred on March 17, 1762, in New York. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin was not until 1996. I am in no way saying that St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t celebrated in Dublin until 1996, only that it was their first parade. Today, nearly 700,000 people travel from around the world to attend the Dublin St. Patrick’s Day parade. There are widely attended parades all across the island now, from Dublin to Belfast, from Wicklow to Galway and points in between. In Ireland, unlike most of America, the day still begins in Mass. As the feast of the patron saint of the country, St. Patrick’s Day is a Holy Day of Obligation. Even many (but not all) lapsed Catholics attend Mass.


David Bailey walking with the The Ancient Order of Hibernians in a New Orleans St. Patrick’s Day parade.

St. Patrick’s Day has become a global brand. Unfortunately, the man whose name is in it has almost completely been forgotten. St. Patrick’s Day is almost a slogan, with the man in the middle of the marque becoming eclipsed by the product on display. And what product is that? What started off in Irish communities outside of Ireland as a celebration of all-things Irish has now become a carnival of all-things pseudo-Irish. St. Patrick would have most certainly disapproved of many aspects with the way he is honored. Of course, that’s the problem. It’s no longer him we’re honoring. We’ve taken a religious event, removed the religion, and ignored the honoree from the occasion. To take what is meant to be a religious occasion, subtract all holiness from it, and replace it with debauchery is nothing short of sacrilege. I’m definitely not saying we shouldn’t celebrate, only that we should do so for the right reasons and with a bit of restraint.

In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is an occasion for families and communities to come together. It always seemed to me to be the closest thing the Irish have to Thanksgiving. Large meals are prepared, family homes are filled, and the day is spent together with food, drink, music, and national pride. Irish language, sports, and culture are on display everywhere in town, at home, on the television and radio, and in every corner of the island. In addition to parades, the pubs are filled with people from around the world. Songs are sung that everyone knows, and the day is mighty with merriment. Most importantly, the day begins with Mass. Every year, the St. Patrick’s Day Mass is broadcast live on RTE- Raidió Teilifís Éireann (Radio and Television of Ireland). More than the revelry and the global scale of the day, this is what Patrick would’ve appreciated the most. If you think about it, it’s the greatest tribute to his legacy.

In the fifth century, St. Patrick brought the Catholic Church to Ireland. 1,500 years later, it’s still there. That is astounding! He did what very few people would’ve done in returning to a place he could’ve justifiably hated. He endured a constant barrage of physical and spiritual attacks… and he won. And did he ever win! After one and half millennia, the Church is still there. Yes, Mass attendance is at an all-time low. But even self-professed atheists will attend their niece’s First Communion, or their nephew’s Confirmation. Often they still genuflect before taking their seats and it is a common occurrence to see people in public making the sign of the cross as a hearse passes by. After fifteen centuries, after plagues, and famines, and massive immigration, after the heresy of Henry VIII, the Penal Laws, and brutal oppression, the Church is still there. This is the legacy of St. Patrick. The boy who was stolen from his home and years later returned of his own free will to establish the faith of our fathers on an island where he is still remembered. Be it a dwindling flicker of light, the faith still survives. This is what we celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day!


Lá fhéile naomh Pádraig sona dhaoibh- Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all!

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.


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