St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is one of Christianity's most widely known figures. But for all his celebrity, his life remains somewhat of a mystery. Many of the stories traditionally associated with St. Patrick--including the famous account of his banishing all the snakes from Ireland--are false; the products of hundreds of years of exaggerated storytelling.
It is known that St. Patrick was born in Britain to wealthy parents near the end of the fourth century. He is believed to have died on March 17, around 460 A.D. When he was about sixteen he was captured by Irish raiders who were attacking his family's estate and taken from his native Wales as a slave to Ireland. During this time he worked as a shepherd outdoors and away from people. Lonely and afraid, he turned to his religion for solace, becoming a devout Christian.
After more than six years as a prisoner, Patrick escaped. According to his writings, a voice he believed to be God's spoke to him in a dream telling him it was time to leave Ireland. To do so, Patrick walked nearly 200 miles from County Mayo-- where it is believed he was held-- to the Irish coast.
After escaping to Britain, Patrick reported that he experienced a second revelation--an angel in a dream tells him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Soon after, Patrick began religious training, a course of study that lasted more than fifteen years. After his ordination as a priest, he was sent back to Ireland.
Patrick spent the balance of his life in Ireland as a missionary. There is a legend that he drove all the snakes from the island, but in reality it became the metaphor for the eradication of pagan ideology and the triumph of Christianity.
According to legend, St. Patrick used the shamrock, a three-leaved plant, to explain the Holy Trinity to the pre-Christian Irish. The shamrock, which was also called the seamroy by the Celts, was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland because it symbolized the rebirth of spring. By the seventeenth century, the shamrock had become a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism. Many Irish began to wear the shamrock as a symbol of their pride in their heritage.
St. Patrick's Day is celebrated on March 17, his religious feast day and the anniversary of his death at age 74 in the fifth century. The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over a thousand years. He is recognized as the Patron Saint of Ireland.
On St. Patrick's Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon, and the celebrations themselves have become legendary!
Today, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated by people of all backgrounds in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Although North America is home to the largest productions, St. Patrick's Day has been celebrated in other locations far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore, and Russia.