Who Was St. Patrick? Here's Why We Celebrate Ireland's Patron Saint On St. Patrick's Day

If your co-workers are wearing more green this week, that's because St. Patrick's Day is March 17, and revelers around the world are observing the Catholic feast turned festival of all things Irish. But who is St. Patrick, and why does he demand that I do a special load of green laundry? The short answer is that St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland itself, but there's more to his story than doing a few good deeds in fifth-century Ireland.

For starters, scholars still debate whether the the stories associated with Patrick were all connected to one man, or if the St. Patrick of canon is a composite of two men — Patrick and Palladius. Palladius was thought to be the first Christian bishop to be sent to Ireland, and is occasionally referred to as "the elder Patrick" in the Irish annals.

What we do know about Patrick is that he was born in Roman Britain, and was captured at the age of 16 by a band of Irish pirates and was held captive as a slave for six years, during which time he converted to Christianity and worked as a shepherd. After six years, Patrick escaped his captors and returned to Britain where he studied the Christian faith and became an ordained missionary, and eventually returned to Ireland to bring his religion to the people that once enslaved him.

Here are some of the legends associated with Patrick during his time in Ireland.

1. He used the shamrock to teach about the Holy Trinity


While the four leaf clover actually has nothing to do with St. Patrick, he did use the more common three leaved shamrock to illustrate the Holy Trinity while doing missionary work in Ireland. From this, the shamrock became a symbol of Ireland itself, and wearing shamrock green was associated with a rejection of British rule.

2. He banished the snakes from Ireland


Well, this one might be more of a metaphor than reality, because science suggests there were never any snakes in Ireland after the ice age ended and the country was no longer connected to mainland Britain. So, there weren't any snakes to banish in the first place. It is more likely that this snake story began as a fable for a Christian missionary driving out paganism.

3. St. Patrick heard voices


In his autobiography, Patrick reports that he was visited by the voice of God and given instructions on how to escape from slavery. Later, he says, he was visited by an angel in a dream and instructed to return to Ireland as a missionary.

4. St. Patrick is believed to have invented the Celtic Cross


This legend is probably also false, since Irish pagans had long used the cross symbol to illustrate the cardinal directions as well as the sacred elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

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