Few days in the calendar of saints have greater public resonance than the feast day of St. Patrick on March 17.
Each year millions of people around the world hold festivities on St. Patrick’s Day as a celebration of everything Irish. In Ireland itself, where Patrick is the country’s patron saint, St. Patrick’s Day is a religious and national holiday honouring the figure widely viewed as the founder of Christianity in Ireland.
So it might be surprising for some to learn that this symbol of Irish identity was not born in Ireland.
The saint known as Patrick was born in Roman Britain, likely Scotland. Scholars agree that unlike a number of saints, Patrick was a real person, whose presence in Ireland is referred to in historical accounts and his autobiographical Confessio.
The first historical mention of Christianity in Ireland is in 431 A.D., when Prosper of Aquitaine recorded that Pope Celestine “ordained Palladius and sent him to those Irish who were believers in Christ to be their first bishop.” Yet Irish annals date Patrick’s arrival in Ireland to 432.
“Some scholars wonder if what we have historically is a conflation of Palladius and Patrick—or a conflation of their missionary work,” says the Rev. Lizette Larson-Miller, Huron-Lawson Chair of Pastoral Theology at Huron University College. “But the historical record indicates there were Christians in Ireland before Palladius arrived in 431.”
In his Confessio, Patrick writes that he was abducted from his home at the age of 16 by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland. Six years later, he escaped and returned to his family. After becoming a cleric, he headed back to Ireland and began ministering there, eventually becoming ordained as a bishop.
Jonathan Lofft, a divinity scholar at Trinity College, University of Toronto, suggests that some details of Patrick’s early life have the air of “romantic legend.” But it is in Patrick’s work as a missionary— arriving in a foreign land later colonized by England and bringing Christianity to its native inhabitants—where Lofft finds elements that may be particularly relevant to the Anglican Church of Canada today.
“In our current cultural moment, at least in the Anglican church, missionary work is being really reassessed,” Lofft says. “Being a ‘missionary to the heathen’ is language that we’re more familiar with hearing in the context of the colonizing enterprise of European Christians to the Indigenous people in North America, and that’s not a very popular thing.”
Patrick, Lofft says, “did a good thing as a missionary. He used the language of the people he was converting. So he didn’t come to destroy, necessarily.” After the Christianization of Ireland, however, authorities denigrated pre-Christian beliefs of the Celtic peoples there.
Patrick’s great rival in pagan Ireland was a king named Leary, or Lóegaire, who was portrayed as “an agent of the devil, and Patrick really has to knock him back and put him in his place and show him the truth,” Lofft says. “But we might read that very differently now—that this was the indigenous religion and the indigenous leader resisted Patrick’s attempt at exerting Roman authority over his people.”
As has often happened with saints, a variety of legends came to be associated with Patrick.
Perhaps the most famous is his use of the shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity—an image frequently depicted in stained glass windows and which Lofft believes is the only legend about Patrick likely to have any historical basis, calling it “an obvious example from nature.”
“Maybe the shamrock had a pagan significance and so it was important that that symbol be Christianized…. The Christian church often colonizes the symbols and festivals [of] indigenous religion,” he notes.
By the seventh century, Christianity had become firmly entrenched in Ireland. The gradual embrace of the new religion, Larson-Miller says, likely had the effect of unifying disparate peoples, contributing to Patrick’s rise as a symbol of Irish Catholicism and national identity. Christianity, she adds, “became a sort of social glue that laid the groundwork for a number of famous Irish saints,” such as St. Aidan of Lindisfarne and St. Columba.
Patrick’s association with Ireland and Catholicism, however, reduced his standing in the English church— particularly after the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer has a blank space in its church calendar on March 17, as do several subsequent prayer books.
When Britain colonized Canada, these attitudes were transplanted along with the Church of England. Irish immigration to Canada began in earnest around 1800.
Initially, Patrick was not identified as a particularly sectarian figure. But with the rise of Irish nationalism over the 19th century—exemplified by the Fenian movement, which carried out raids into British North America and spurred Canadian confederation—that innocuous view of Patrick began to change.
“Especially into the Confederation era in Canada, he really becomes associated with Catholic aggression, with Fenianism … [as] a patron saint who stands in opposition to the British Empire,” Lofft says.
While partying and revelry have long been associated with St. Patrick’s Day, in 19th-century Canada the day was often a flashpoint for sectarian tensions.
In Toronto—which had a large Irish Protestant population, with the Orange Order being a powerful force in local politics—St. Patrick’s Day became an occasion for violence between Protestants and Catholics. Alcohol was often an aggravating factor.
“There’s documentary evidence right back into the 1820s that there was heavy drinking associated with St. Patrick’s Day,” Lofft says. He notes that the average person in the 1800s consumed much of their water by drinking whiskey due to the lack of potable drinking water. “When somebody says there was excessive drinking on St. Patrick’s Day, that means it was a pretty wild time even by our standards.”
The mix of sectarianism and booze, at a time when there was tremendous hostility towards Roman Catholicism in Ireland, Britain and Canada, led to destructive consequences.
“Any occasion on which Roman Catholics feel it’s safe to come out and self-identity or parade around, do a processional liturgy and really wear their identity—that’s going to elicit a lot of hostility from the militant Protestants who are a huge part of Toronto’s population,” Lofft says.
With the gaining of Irish independence after the First World War, open animosity between Irish and English groups declined. In the absence of the Fenian threat and under the influence of the massive Irish population in the United States, celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Canada became more mainstream and secularized.
Anglican attitudes to Patrick also shifted. The 1962 Canadian update of the Book of Common Prayer includes the feast day on March 17 for “St. Patrick of Ireland, Missionary and Bishop, 461.” Today, there are six Anglican churches named after St. Patrick across Canada.
Despite his veneration as a saint, Patrick has become “very much a secular figure,” Lofft says, comparing him to the association of St. Nicholas with Christmas.
“It’s really his Irishness that is the long and the short of it with Patrick,” Lofft says. “The wearing of the green and all of the St. Patrick’s Day stuff is really all about celebrating the Irish diaspora.”
“Canadians like to boast that if you go anywhere in the world and have a Canadian flag on your backpack, that’ll keep you out of trouble or whatever,” he adds. “The shamrock has the same kind of magical significance…. There is a kind of magic about Ireland in a lot of Western culture…. St. Patrick represents that and I think that’s the basis of his popularity.”