Will the real St. Patrick please stand up?

Dubliner Robyn Gilmour separates the man from the myth and the celebration from the symbol, in search of the real meaning of St. Patrick’s Day


“Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations” 

The poetic prelude to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass reads like an installation you might find fitted on a large, well-lit wall somewhere in Dublin Airport’s terminal two. It reeks of an idea that ‘Céad Mile Fáilte’ would trip over itself to claim as it’s kin. The sentiment suits our lengthy history of emigration; we like the idea that a nation can be a people as much if not more than it can be a place, and take comfort in the faith that we will find our kin wherever in the world we travel. 

I think about this often, being an Irish person living abroad, particularly when crawling through Dublin airport, the terminal inevitably heaving with people like me, all leaving home to go home; and I think about it again now, considering St. Patrick’s Day, and how difficult it is to write about without sounding cliche. There are bigger, more extravagant St. Patrick’s Day parades held elsewhere in the world, than there are in Ireland, though there's nothing quite like being in Dublin for St. Patrick's Day. We’d never go to the trouble of dying the Liffey green, though it’s about half the size of the Chicago river, which is illuminated in our national colour every year.

Hell, St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish. He was Welsh, and supposedly kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery, where he was put to work tending sheep on Slemish Mountain, County Antrim. In St Patrick’s Confessio, a short autobiography written just before his death, Patrick wrote that “I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. We deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments… The Lord brought his strong anger upon us, and scattered us among many nations even to the ends of the earth. It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was.”

For several years he was held captive, a period that Patrick credits as strengthening his faith; he prayed both that he might be brought closer to God, and that he would one day be able to escape slavery and return home, which he eventually did. After joining the clergy, and studying for some fifteen years, Patrick returned to Ireland- we all come back, one way or another- and spent the rest of his life working as a missionary.

Supposedly, St. Patrick’s mission in Ireland began in the year 432, and by the time of his death, on 17th March 461, the island was almost entirely Christian. From 2022, those dates feel so deeply buried in the past that it is difficult to think of St. Patrick’s story as anything but a myth; the adventures of a single man around a tiny island, aren’t quite of the same significance as, say, the Fall of Rome (476), but for all this is the case, we annually don our shamrocks in honour of a man who used the tiny three-leafed clover to explain the Holy Trinity to a pagan nation. 

The Rock of Cashel © Giorgio Galeotti (CC BY 4.0)

St. Patrick’s life has been carved into modern culture, but so too is his imprint to be found in the Irish landscape. Aside from being the most impressive cluster of medieval buildings in Ireland, The Rock of Cashel in Tipperary was the original seat of the Kings of Munster during their reign, and it was here that St. Patrick converted King Aenghus to Christianity. Now, among the monuments to be found on site, there is a round tower, a high cross, a Romanesque chapel, a Gothic cathedral, an abbey, a fifteenth-century Tower House and the only remaining Romanesque frescoes in Ireland. 

Additionally there are several pilgrimages around Ireland that trace paths beaten by St. Patrick in his lifetime. Saint Patrick’s Way, for example, is an 82 mile signed walking trail starting outside Navan Centre in County Armagh and ending at Downpatrick, a small town in County Down which is said to be the final resting place of St. Patrick. The cathedral there is supposed to mark the site of his burial. 

Croagh Patrick is an equally notable site; the 2,507 ft mountain in County Mayo is now an important destination for pilgrims who still make the treacherous climb today to reach the modern chapel constructed at its peak. Legend has it that St. Patrick journeyed up this mountain, spent forty days fasting there, and had his faith tested by a demonic female serpent at the summit; one can only assume his defeat of the witch is where notions of him “running snakes out of Ireland” came from. The overlap of Celtic myth and biblical account, will never not amuse me. 

Croagh Patrick © Stephen Fisher (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yet this outrageous amalgam of history, mythology, and religion culminates in something quite culturally important; the Irish landscape remembers St. Patrick, but our ancestors (both recent and distant) have padded-out and passed along the story of his life. St. Patrick is a figure we’ve held onto as a way of staying connected to those who equally cherish him, be it for historic, religious or folkloric reasons. This cultural importance, in my humble opinion, is therefore not bound up in the story of Patrick itself, but instead speaks to an ingrained human longing for togetherness. 

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was, believe it or not, not even held in Ireland. Sources contest whether the first known celebration of the saint took place in St Augustine, Florida 1601, in Boston 1737, or New York in the 1770s- but all accounts agree that the event was originally organised to soothe Irish soldiers and sailors who’d found themselves abroad and missing home. I am here reminded of St. Patrick’s Confessio, his feeling of being small and isolated in a strange land among unfamiliar people, his wanting to believe in something bigger, something that would render him less alone. 

It’s for this reason that I often consider Leaves of Grass and the story of St. Patrick alongside one another- for all that may strike many as a bit of a stretch. Leaves of Grass is a seminal text because of its intention to write the United States into existence, to cast a wide net, gather as many in close as possible, and build a nation out of those who believed themselves to be in common. Whitman was not without his flaws, in the same way manifestations of Irishness have not always had positive repercussions for communities they formulate alongside, but the optimist will find in Whitman’s suggestion that a nation can be “a teeming nation of nations”, an assurance that you don’t have to be born on a certain soil to be a citizen, you don’t have to be the same to be in common. The global celebration of St. Patrick’s Day each year is a testament to this. 

St. Patrick's Day parade © St Patrick’s Festival Ireland

The theme for this landmark event is Connections, and will be a moment for Ireland and the millions who claim Irish heritage around the world to connect and reflect, celebrate and welcome. The iconic National St. Patrick’s Day Parade returns to the streets of Dublin on March 17th, with more pageants, more marching bands and more participants than ever before. New for 2022 is Festival Quarter at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks which will be home to a magical day-to-night urban Festival for all, from March 16th to 20th on the grounds of one of Ireland’s most spectacular and historic heritage sites, in the heart of Dublin. Festival Quarter will also host the Irish Food & Design Village, a daily showcase of Ireland’s incredible produce, arts and crafts and a space for all to relax and connect. 

St. Patrick’s Festival will be marking the centenary of the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce, joining cultural institutions all over the city who are coming together to celebrate this landmark novel. Ulysses 2.2 is a year-long programme celebrating the centenary, which is led by the Museum of Literature Ireland and theatre companies ANU & Landmark Productions and will see 18 artists each respond to one of the 18 episodes in Ulysses.

The Festival Programme is available now at stpatricksfestival.ie and will continue to be updated as more events are announced. 


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