Newsroom Blog

The Real St. Patrick… and a Brief History of the Holiday in the U.S.

Mar 17 2015

Tuesday, Mar. 17, is St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday more celebrated than say, St. Swithin’s Day (that’s July 15), but, does anyone really know about the real St. Patrick?

Clayton State University Professor of History Dr. Adam Tate does, and he provides some background on the saint and the holiday that gives more perspective than green beer and parades.

According the Tate, St. Patrick was English by birth, and left behind two known written manuscripts that were copied by monks. The first is a letter and the second is called Patrick’s Confession, in which the saint writes about his life, a life that included being a slave in Ireland in the fifth century, when he was 14.

“These documents are rather extraordinary,” says Tate. “We have almost no literature directly from the mouth of a slave from that time.”

Tate also reports that stories of Patrick began appearing about 150 years after his death. The theories on Patrick favored by historians run towards either Patrick’s two documents were discovered at that point and the stories were embellished over time, or perhaps the information in the documents came from stories told about the saint that were passed down through generations.

This last explanation makes sense, since, as Tate notes, “the Irish have a strong oral tradition.”

Patrick’s documents indicate that he escaped slavery and returned to England, and that he later went back to Ireland as a missionary bishop — one of the first ever.

“That makes him unique,” Tate says.

As for tomorrow’s holiday, according to Tate, public celebrations of Patrick began in the 17th Century, starting with societies of Irish immigrants coming together in foreign lands.

“Irish people created mutual aid societies to help Irish immigrants,” Tate says. “They would come together to have dinner, give speeches and then a toast — all to raise money for the societies.”

In the United States, the wave of Irish immigration was accelerated by the 19th Century potato famine, Tate adds, noting that parades in the U.S. in the mid-19th Century began, “to show their enemies that the Irish were strong.”

It wasn’t until the 1870s, Tate says, that the celebrations’ meaning changed from religious to political.

Of course, in the 20th Century, corporations became more involved in promoting the holiday.

“The meaning of St. Patrick’s Day changed over the years,” Tate concludes. “It still binds the ethnic community together and the day means something different to everyone.”

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