The history behind St. Patrick’s Day

By Hugh Curran

March 17 is the feast day of St. Patrick (La Fheile Padraig), which traditionally takes place between Brigid’s Day (Feb. 1) and Beltaine Day (May 1). Coincidentally, it is considered to be the first day of spring for the planting of potatoes in Ireland.

It is also a day for thousands of pilgrims to climb Croagh Padraig (St. Patrick’s Mountain) in Mayo, a pilgrimage I made a few years ago to hike to the top of this sacred mountain. The pilgrimage honors the 40 days of fast and abstinence undertaken by St. Patrick 1,500 years ago on this mountain.

As I made my way up to the top of the 2,500-foot mountain overlooking Clew Bay, I gazed down at the harbor and recalled the stories of the many Irish who began their journey from here to the New World to avoid starvation during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century. It was estimated that a million died and a million immigrated between 1847 and 1854, mostly settling in Canada, America and Australia. This mass migration continued unabated for over 100 years and our family was among the last of that great diaspora arriving in the 1950s. Over 70 million Irish descendants now live worldwide with 40 million living in the United States and Canada.

Most historians say that St. Patrick was born in Wales during the Romano-British period of the 1st to the 5th centuries. Patrick was from a patrician family of Old British (pre-Anglo-Saxon) stock, all of whom were subject to invaders as a result of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Patrick was captured at the age of 16 by Irish pirates and sold to a farmer to herd sheep and cattle. After six years, he escaped by walking the length of Ireland and took a ship back to Wales and then to France, where he studied for about 20 years at a monastery before returning to Ireland.

Patrick passed away in 493AD and became honored as one of three patron saints of Ireland, along with St. Bridget and St. Columba. Columba of Donegal, born in 523 AD, was the founder of Iona Monastery in Scotland, known for its austere contemplative traditions and gradually spreading its influence throughout Scotland and as far south as Lindisfarne Monastery in England, made famous by the Celtic saints, Aidan and Cuthbert.

After Patrick’s death, the Irish adopted a style more suited to a rural, clan-oriented lifestyle by building small stone oratories and beehive huts for monastic establishments. In the 6th century many austere followers of St. Patrick, such as Columbanus, brought the ascetic style of the Celtic church to the founding of monastic establishments in Germany, France and Italy. St. Adamnan (Eunan), a relative of Columba’s, became, afterward, the abbot of Iona and convinced over 100 clan leaders to adopt the Peace of Eunan (Cain Eunan), which encouraged warring clans to refrain from slaying women, children or clergy in their clan battles

Due to the Industrial Revolution in England, many Irish and Scots-Irish lost their home industries and were compelled to immigrate to America. Under their influence, the “Friendly Sons of St. Patrick” was founded in Philadelphia in 1771, and George Washington and many of his officers became honorary members. It was the presence of so many Irish and Scots-Irish, who contributed their efforts to the revolutionary army, providing one-third of its soldiers and nine of its generals.

One of these was Gen. John Sullivan, whose father was Owen O’Sullivan from the Beara Peninsula in Ireland. After the Revolutionary War, he became governor of New Hampshire, while his brother, James Sullivan, became the governor of Massachussetts. Another early Irish family, led by Jeremiah O’Brien’s, settled in Machias and, with his four brothers, initiated the first naval battle of the Revolution by capturing a British ship off the coast of Maine.

In one of the great coincidences of history, the Great Famine (1847-1854), took place shortly before the American Civil War and up to 200,000 Irish born soldiers, arriving from hardscrabble circumstances, and despite suffering abuse from xenophobic nativists, joined the army, where seven Irish-born Generals led them into battle, resulting in a 25 percent mortality rate. Despite the grimness brought on by wartime conditions, the soldiers continued to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as a mark of loyalty to their home country by holding religious services and afterward taking part in such recreations as horse-racing.

St. Patrick’s Day has, traditionally, been celebrated by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox as well as Protestant churches although nowadays it is also being celebrated by those who have no religious affiliation.

“La Fheile Padraig sonas dhaoibh!” (A happy St Patrick’s Day to you all!)

Hugh Curran was born in Donegal, Ireland, and with his family immigrated to Canada, and eventually settled in Maine, where he now teaches peace and reconciliation studies at the University of Maine.

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