St Patrick: False Myths, Folklore and traditions of his Feast day

Image result for saint patrick stained glass

In this article, I ultimately aim to speak a bit of the historical Patrick, the mythological Patrick and to share some of the traditions associated with his feast day. Also due to the false information that proliferates the internet (mostly propagated by a select bunch of neo-pagans who favour sensationalist stories over actual research). I intend to address some of those myths, namely the whole “All Snakes Day” and “the snakes he banished were a metaphor for the Druids” nonsense that pops up at this time of the year all over the internet. (caveat: I have nothing against pagans, I’m a practicing pagan myself, I just have an issue with the ill-informed, new age, fluffy bunny idiots who refuse to do proper research, who believe everything on the internet and who make stuff up as they go along).

As many know St. Patrick is regarded as the primary patron saint of Ireland. His elevated status to patron saint is mostly due to the falsely attributed fact of him introducing Christianity to Ireland (it should also be noted that his primacy was not always the case. It would appear that St. Brigid was the most venerated saint until the patriarchal Roman Church eclipsed the Celtic Church). In my opinion the feminine should be embraced considering Ireland herself is considered feminine and named after the Goddess Éirú, but that is a story for another day! (see my other article about Brigid and her origin as a pan-celtic Goddess) . It should also be noted that while spring time is intrinsically bound up with the feminine, i.e. birth and fertility, it is no coincidence that a powerful male character such as Patrick and his feast was imposed around the time of the vernal equinox.

One of the biggest falsely attributed “facts” to the saint is the belief of him bringing Christianity to Ireland. This new religion was not unknown to natives when Patrick returned here to preach the word of the new God. The traditional date for Patrick’s return to Ireland is 432 AD. Paladius had been sent here a year or so before as a bishop to “a people who believed in Christ”, meaning that there was already a number of converted people here prior to Patrick’s return. There were also several pre-patrician saints here many years prior to his coming, such as Declan of Ardmore. Additionally, Irish colonies in Wales and Cornwall would have had contact with early Christianity in Britain and brought it back over. Many would argue that Patrick never moved much further away from his seat in Armagh, which goes against multiple stories of him travelling the length and breadth of the country.

The Historical Patrick

Not much is known of the real Patrick and the only surviving writings generally attributed to him are his Confessio and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus (both can be read on the confession.ie website. Here you will find commentaries on the works and also view the extant manuscripts). Patrick was not, as many believe, Irish but was in fact Romano-British. He came from an ecclesiastical family where his father and grandfather were both deacon and priest. He was captured by Irish raiders somewhere around his sixteenth year and brought back to Ireland as a slave to be a swineherd. It was here through vigorous praying and fasting where he got his message from god and had visitations by angels. He would escape back to Britain only to return later to convert the populous. In his own writings (if they are indeed his) he comes across as simple and humble, a far cry from how he was later portrayed in his hagiography as the Druid battling, demon smiting, miracle performer. Unfortunately, it is from these much later pseudo-historical works that many people draw their “facts” about Patrick.

The Mythological Patrick

The earliest Saints’ Lives of Patrick did not emerge until centuries after his death. Muirchú, a successor of Cogitosis (who had written the life of St. Brigid), wrote one of the Lives and Bishop Tírechán wrote the other (Tíreachán’s was more of a collectania than a chronological life). Both are highly fantastical but offer differing attitudes towards Druids especially and are heavy with biblical allegory when relating to Patrick battling his pagan adversaries, namely the Druids and the staunchly pagan King Loegaire.  This brings me to the point I mentioned above: the false belief that Patrick slaughtered and wiped out the Druids here in Ireland. There are a plethora of online articles, blogs and YouTube videos of ill-informed, un-educated, idiotic neo-pagans crying that their ancestors were murdered in the multitudes by Patrick. A “fact” that is utterly unsubstantiated and unfounded. Their protestations of not wearing green, calling it “All Snakes Day” and wearing black are utterly ridiculous. There was no Irish pagan genocide, no proof of any great violent Druid purge in Ireland, it simply doesn’t exist outside hagiography.  These are the same sort of people who falsely claim that the snakes that Patrick banished were in fact a metaphor for pagans or Druids. This again is untrue.  The story of the banishment of the snakes doesn’t appear until much later (The imagery of Patrick banishing all snakes from Ireland stems from a separate Life of the Saint, written by Jocelyn of Furness late in the twelfth century) and in all of the Saints’ Lives, Druids are mentioned by name and never in a cryptic matter so this sudden use of a metaphor makes no sense. There are other instances in hagiography where a serpent is banished at a lake by a Saint (cf. Colmcille and the Loch Ness monster and St.Finbarr and the Péist at Gougane Barra) which could be looked at as the new religion banishing the old but in this particular instance with Patrick it just does not fit or make sense. Paganism and Druids did not just disappear overnight when Patrick arrived. For centuries later they pop up in the manuscripts in ways that show us they were, without a doubt, still around. A hymn protecting against the “spells of wrights and Druids” corroborates this as does the inclusion of Druids in Brehon Law texts (some centuries after Patrick’s death). Just as the new religion had repackaged many of the earlier traditions, it appears that the Druids took a similar approach and repackaged themselves as the professional poet class, the “filidh” (the etymology of which is originally thought to have meant “seer”). These poets were second only to the king and continued to have a very high status up until the battle of Kinsale and the so-called “Flight of the Earls” in the 1600’s.  My ranting aside, I will now share with you the traditions associated with the feast of the saint.

The Traditions of his Feast Day.

St-Patrick-cross.jpg
St Patrick’s cross

In the not so distant past, before all the green beer and dying rivers green (or any other plastic paddy tomfoolery) there were many traditions associated with the day. One of the most recognisable to still survive would be the wearing of shamrock. I will be using some examples from the National Folklore Schools Collection (hereafter NFSC) now digitised on Ducas.ie. This was a project run in the school year of 1937-8 where schools across the country tasked the children with collecting folklore from relatives and neighbours. This also helped Identify the richest areas to collect folklore for the larger national collection that was to follow. In addition, I will be using some examples from Kevin Danaher’s excellent book “The Year in Ireland” which focuses on the calendar customs of Ireland. Some of the traditions are as follows:

St. Patrick’s Day Crosses and wetting the shamrock

An entry in the NFSC notes that : all girls used to wear crosses on St. Patrick’s Day to honour the saint. They took 2 pieces of stiff cardboard, one longer than the other, covered the pieces with nice silk and sewn them together in the shape of a cross. They would collect the silk or satin for a few months before and as the time drew closer they’d sew them onto the cross. It was worn on left arm on the day and for the whole week after in school. There wasn’t any meas (respect) on any girl who didn’t have one. The brighter the colours the better and more proud the girls were of them. The biggest horse fair in Munster used to be held on St. Patrick’s Day but was changed to the 18th due to St. Patrick’s Day being a national holiday. A grandmother of a the collector used to go to the crossroads to watch all the horses galloping passed and it was “as good as being at the races”.  All the grown-up boys and girls used to attend the fair as well as newlywed couples who would attend in their wedding garments. “Every tinker in Munster used to attend”. They would occupy their time by trading. Some [traveller] families specialized in selling horses while others dealt in donkeys (NFSC, Vol. 0448:198). Although this account only mentions girls, a similar cross was wore by boys.

Another account of the cross mentions that the crosses were made in school the day before. Each child carried an egg into school. The yoke was used to colour the yellow part, while the green part was coloured by the juice of some plant. If any eggs were left over they were sold and sweets were bought for the children with the money. Along with the badges they wore shamrock. Men wore shamrock in their caps until Palm Sunday when they wore palm instead (NFSC, Vol. 0571:197).

Kevin Danaher, the respected folklorist says that both the crosses and “wetting the shamrock” (going for a drink,) are two of the oldest traditions that can be traced back the furthest. St. Patrick’s Day was also a cheat day during Lent which allowed for indulgence. (In fact eating meat on the day as part of Lenten indulgence was mentioned in the 12th century life by Jocelyn). This is attested a in an account (c.1681) by an English traveller, Thomas Dinley. He says: “The 17th day of March yearly is St Patrick’s, an immoveable (fixed date) feast when the Irish of all stations and condicions wore crosses in their hats, some of pins, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitious wear shamrouges, 3 leaved grass, which they likewise eat  (they say) to cause a sweet breath. The common people and servants also demand their Patricks groat of their masters, which they goe expressly to town, though half a dozen miles off, to spend, where sometimes it amounts to a piece of 8 or cobb or piece, and very few of the zealous are found sober at night” (Danaher, 1996:58).  This tradition was also found outside Ireland within the Irish diaspora and It was recorded in 1713 in London by Dean Swift. His account mentions that he has seen so many people wearing crosses on the day that he thought “all the world was Irish”. These types of cross eventually died out (but many examples survive in museums), eventually giving way to the harp shaped badge and green ribbon rosette that were common in more modern times (Danaher,1996:63).  The “wetting of the shamrock” expression comes from the practice of dropping the shamrock in the final drink of the evening and when the glass has been emptied, the shamrock is removed and tossed over the left shoulder.

Another entry in the NFSC recounts that “On St. Patrick’s Day the people wear shamrocks and long ago they used wear a black sally cross on the right shoulder” (NFSC, Vol. 0547:81). It gives no further explanation of this type of cross but another account in the NFSC possibly sheds some light on this. It says that “one custom that is dying out is the making of a cross on the sleeve with a stick that is partly burned” (NFSC, Vol. 0640:40). This tradition is further elaborated on in an entry from Kilkenny. It says that the head of the family burned a hazel rod and marked a cross on each person’s arm. The significance of it being a hazel rod is explained as being due to the fact that the snakes were banished by Patrick with a hazel rod (NFSC, Vol. 0868:046).

We see a number of the traditions listed on the following short account, likewise found in the NFSC: “On that day Mass is celebrated in each church, and hymns to St. Patrick are sung. Each man, woman and child is wearing a bunch of shamrocks. Some are wearing green harps and badges of St. Patrick. After Mass, crowds of young men playing bands, and carrying banners, march through the towns, followed by admiring crowds. That night Ceilidhs, and Irish concerts are held. Boxes of shamrocks are sent to our absent friends in foreign lands” (NFSC,Vol.1037:145).

However you celebrate your St. Patrick’s Day, have a good one! I hope you enjoyed learning about the feast of the patron saint of Ireland! la fhéile pádraig shona daoibh (happy Saint Patricks day)