On St. Patrick’s Day—Thursday, March 17—millions of people will don green and celebrate the Irish with parades, good cheer, and perhaps a pint of beer. But few St. Patrick’s Day revelers have a clue about St. Patrick, the historical figure, according to the author of St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography. “The modern celebration of St. Patrick’s Day really has almost nothing to do with the real man,” said classics professor Philip Freeman of Luther College in Iowa.
Who Was the Man Behind St. Patrick’s Day?
For starters, the real St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish. He was born in Britain around A.D. 390 to an aristocratic Christian family with a townhouse, a country villa, and plenty of slaves. What’s more, Patrick professed no interest in Christianity as a young boy, Freeman noted. At 16, Patrick’s world turned: He was kidnapped and sent overseas to tend sheep as a slave in the chilly, mountainous countryside of Ireland for seven years. “It was just horrible for him,” Freeman said. “But he got a religious conversion while he was there and became a very deeply believing Christian.”
According to folklore, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family. The voice then told him to go back to Ireland. “He gets ordained as a priest from a bishop, and goes back and spends the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity,” Freeman said.
Patrick’s work in Ireland was tough—he was constantly beaten by thugs, harassed by the Irish royalty, and admonished by his British superiors. After he died on March 17, 461, Patrick was largely forgotten. But slowly, mythology grew around Patrick, and centuries later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland, Freeman noted.
According to St. Patrick’s Day lore, Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the Christian holy trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Today, St. Patrick’s Day revelers wear a shamrock out of tradition.