On this past 17th of March, I spoke with a few of the classes about St Patrick’s Day, the national holiday on the island of Ireland, where I am from. When most people think of St Patrick´s Day nowadays, they think of the likes of what is celebrated in the Plaza de España here in Pontevedra – that is to say green hats, leprechauns, shamrocks, loud music and an excuse to drink lots of beer. However, there is a little more to the story of the day and who St Patrick was and I will try to explain some of the history.
St Patrick, Ireland’s patron Saint, was not Irish. He was originally from either Wales or Scotland and named Maewyn Succat, according to historians, although when we are talking about someone who lived in the late 4th Century, it is difficult to say things with certainty. What we know about St Patrick comes from a letter he wrote in Latin, called his ´Confession´, that is one of the oldest surviving texts written in Ireland in any language. You can see it at the famous Trinity College in Dublin.
What is clear is that Patrick was born to wealthy parents, and kidnapped from his family’s lands and taken to Ireland, where he was enslaved, working as a shepherd around the lands of Slemish Mountain, County Antrim (40km from Belfast). Patrick´s parents had believed in God, but he was not very religious. However, in his loneliness working in the fields, it is said that he turned to prayer and heard the voice of God call to him to escape from Ireland after 6 years there, which he did, and after a few years found himself home with his family. However, while home, he writes that he had a dream which told him to return to Ireland and teach the people about his Christian God. At this time, Ireland, like Galicia, was Celtic and Pagan, and missionaries were yet to convince the majority people to believe in the new religion.
Patrick converted and baptised thousands of people, and set up small churches all over the island, especially in the North. He also set up Monasteries in rural areas for people to study the word of God, establishing Ireland as ´The Land of Saints and Scholars´. This is really important, because during the Dark Ages which followed the Roman Empire, Irish Monasteries were one of the very few places in Europe where people were writing, producing beautiful manuscripts like the famous ´Book of Kells´. St Patrick died on March 17th, and is buried at the Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down (which is the county I am from). This is why we celebrate on this day.
There are many myths and legends about St Patrick. The Shamrock is Ireland’s national symbol because it is said that Patrick used the 3 leaves of the plant to teach the people about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit when he was speaking to big crowds. It is also said that St Patrick rid Ireland of all of its snakes, and drove them into the Irish Sea. These are both nice stories that we learnt as children, but they aren’t true. However, in Ireland we have lots of myths and legends like these.
So now you know the Religious part, how did St Patrick’s Day become the celebration of Irishness that we know today? The key lies in the fact that the Irish, like Galicians, emigrated all over the world due to problems in their homeland, most infamously the Famines in the in the middle of the 1700s and 1800s. They especially went to Australia and North America. The Irish abroad looked for a day in which they could celebrate their culture. This is where the idea of St Patrick’s Day as a cultural festival came about. The first St Patrick’s Day Parades were held in Boston and New York City in the 1760s, and took on greater and greater importance as time went on and the Irish diaspora went out around the world. 33 million Americans today have Irish heritage, including 22 of the 43 Presidents up to Barack Obama, whose Great Grandfather was from County Offaly.
As the Irish emigrated, they took their culture with them. As a result, soon all over the World, from Sydney to New York to Madrid, festivals were held on March 17th with Irish dancing, language, music, Gaelic sports, and (most importantly perhaps) food and drink. This is the St Patrick´s Day we know today. The Irish people love to have a good time and people all over the world want to join in, wearing green and drinking pints of ´the black stuff´ (Guinness). Famous buildings, like Cibeles in Madrid, the Taj Mahal, and the White House, are all lit up in green for the day.