Last Thursday, we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at my house. Our plates of corn beef and cabbage sat on woven place mats with shamrocks and Irish harps. A pot of shamrocks was our centerpiece. Not real shamrocks, but gloxinia, which has the clover-shaped leaves and little white flowers.
The corn beef and cabbage are totally an American-Irish tradition for St. Patrick’s Day. You’ll not find it served in Ireland.
While we ate, we talked of my recent trip to Ireland and all the St. Patrick legends I heard as we visited cathedrals and castles. Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and March 17 is, in fact, a religious feast day.
For those who didn’t know, St. Patrick himself was British, born in Roman Britain in the fourth century. In his teens, Irish raiders kidnapped him. He worked as a shepherd and “found God,” who called him to evangelize Ireland. Later he became a priest and spent years converting the Irish pagans. He died on 17 March. Over the following centuries, many legends grew up around Patrick and he became Ireland’s foremost saint.
Technically, St. Patrick was never canonized by a pope as saints of the modern day church are. There wasn’t a formal canonization process in the Church’s first millennium, so most saints from that period were granted the title if they were either martyrs or seen as extraordinarily holy. But Saint Patrick is revered as holy by the Irish. Pictures like this one can be found everywhere on the island.
One of the stops on my trip along the west of Ireland was at The Rock of Cashel, seat of the overkings of Munster where St. Patrick baptized the grandsons of Conall Corc. The legend says during the baptism the saint’s sharply pointed crozier pierced the son’s foot, who, believing it a part of the ceremony, suffered in silence. Since the baptism occurred in the 10th century, who knows if the story is fact or fiction.
On the same trip, I went to Croagh Patrick, the mountain which overlooks Clew Bay in County Mayo. It is known as the holiest mountain in Ireland because St. Patrick fasted for forty days on the mountain summit in 441 AD. Now individuals and groups come from all over the world to climb to the summit and celebrate mass at the modern chapel at the top.
The first stop on the pilgrimage is Saint Patrick’s statue erected in 1928 by Reverend Father Patterson with money he collected in America towards the rebuilding of Saint Mary’s Church in Westport. Because it was late in the day and raining – not raining raining but what the Irish call spitting, we only hiked as far as the statue.
The most common St Patrick’s Day symbol is the shamrock, a representation of the Holy Trinity. St. Patrick is said to have used the three-leaved shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to Irish pagans.
While parades, dancing, special foods, and a whole lot of green are fun ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and our Irish heritage, it’s also good to pause and remember who Saint Patrick was.