By Hugh Curran
When I was a youth in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was considered a Holy Day of Obligation in which religious services were held to commemorate him. St. Patrick’s “Confessions” told a story of being captured by pirates raiding Roman Britain and being sold into slavery, where he spent six years as a captive. He eventually escaped by walking across Ireland and found passage on a ship to take him back to his home. Much later he returned having made a vow to “save” the Irish.
His captive days were most likely spent in Mayo, near the mountain named after him, Croagh Patrick, a 2,500-foot conical peak. The mountain is now an important pilgrimage site with tens of thousands of pilgrims ascending it on March 17 as well as on the last Sunday of July, known as Reek Sunday. Some years ago, I went on my own pilgrimage up the mountain, a six-hour round trip hike in blustery and rain-soaked weather, and gained much appreciation for those who undertake such a pilgrimage and especially for the 40 days that Patrick was reputed to have spent on the mountain fasting and meditating and having dialogues with God.
Patrick’s relationship to Ireland became intertwined with various legends, one of which was his visit to Armagh to convert the high king of Ireland, Ui Loegaire (O’Leary). In order to avoid the Druids, who were not kindly disposed toward him, Patrick changed himself and his followers into deer. In this guise they passed by the guards, who had been told not to allow Patrick or his attendants to come anywhere near the castle.
Another legend was known as the “Colloquy of the Ancients,” in which St. Patrick has a discussion with two ancient warriors, Cailte and Oisin. Their cordial exchanges expressed the differences between the old ways with its love of nature and the austere practices of Christianity. In the end neither side was convinced of the superiority of one over the other. The Irish poet WB Yeats included a version of this story in his early poetry.
Another legend attributed to St. Patrick was that he fought a water monster in Lough Derg, Donegal. Patrick, according to the story, had to fight naked with only his crozier walking stick. Using his crozier he slew the monster from the inside, after having been swallowed whole, and hacked his way out. This is why the lake is referred to as Lough Derg, which means “red lake.” By the 11th century, Lough Derg had become the well-known pilgrimage site St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and continues to this day to be attractive as a pilgrimage retreat center. This demanding penitential had such a high reputation that it attracted famous poets such as Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney, who wrote poems about their experience there. I took part in one such retreat, a three-day event, with my wife and young son where we were given bread and water for our meals and required to attend religious services in bare feet.
In almost all countries, including the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Scotland, wherever the Irish Diaspora has taken place, St. Patrick’s Day is associated with celebrations and parties, a departure from the religious strictness of its past. It has also become a day to honor and acknowledge the many contributions of Irish immigrants to the making of America. The first official St. Patrick’s Day was commemorated by Gen. George Washington on March 17, 1780, to honor Irish soldiers, such as Gen. John Sullivan of New Hampshire, who were serving with the Revolutionary Army.
Some years later, the American Civil War had an estimated 200,000 Irish soldiers participate. Even during the stress of battle they found interludes to honor St. Patrick’s Day with contests including horse racing.
Descendants of the Irish continue to be a significant part of the American population, with an estimated 33 million of them self-identifying as being of Irish ancestry.
Hugh Curran was born in Donegal, Ireland, and after living in Canada moved to Surry. He teaches courses in Peace & Reconciliation Studies at the University of Maine.