On March 17, hoards of Americans usually drink green beer,
sing Irish songs and generally act like fools all to celebrate the legacy of one
Saint Patrick. If you ask any of these revelers what Saint Patrick did, you
will be told that Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Did he really,
Patrick, born Maewyn Succat in 4th-century Britain, was
kidnapped and enslaved by Irish raiders as a teen. He escaped and returned to
Britain after six years, but believed it was his mission to bring Christianity
to Ireland. He returned, dubbed himself Patrick (derived from the word "father"), returned to the green isle and spent his years baptizing and confirming its residents.
Patrick was supposedly on a 40-day fast when he was attacked
by snakes and subsequently drove them into the sea.
Well, first off, there are no snakes in Ireland, nor have there
ever been. "At no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in
Ireland. [There was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish," according to Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, as told to National Geographic.
During the Ice Age, it was just too cold for snakes in what
would become Ireland. Once the polar ice caps melted, snakes never made the
migration from Britain when there was a land bridge connecting the two islands.
Then, the sea cut them apart and snakes were blocked from Ireland forever.
So, if the real snakes weren’t an issue, where did the
legend come from? Likely, snakes refer to non-Christians, specifically Druids.
A common symbol for the Druids, who were religious leaders in Celtic cultures,
was the serpent. In Christianity, the serpent is symbolic for Satan, like in
the Garden of Eden story. Saint Patrick supposedly drove the pagan Druids out of Ireland to make room for Christianity, so the snake reference is probably purely metaphorical.
Burning question, though: How did the Druids know about
serpents, then, if snakes weren’t around? That is still a mystery that scientists and historians are trying to solve.
Saint Patrick also used the shamrock to denote the Holy Trinity, with each of the three leaves standing for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the
17th century, Catholics started observing his feast day of March 17 by wearing
the shamrock. He was often depicted in artwork in his official shade of blue, not the green we associate with St. Patrick's Day. In the 18th century, as blue was associated with the English
and green for Irish rebels during the Irish Rebellion, green became synonymous
with Saint Patrick. It still wasn't a big deal holiday, though.
When Irish immigrants came to America, the party got
started, with boisterous parades dating back to 1737 Boston and 1762 New York.
Corned beef was subbed in for the scarce yet traditional salt pork, as salted brisket was plentiful at nearby Jewish delis. The corns refer to the size of the salt
kernels, not actual corn. With potatoes and cabbage, a tradition was born. Just add Guinness beer, a shot of Jameson and some loud Irish music, and you’ve got a party.
TL;DR: So, there were never snakes for Saint Patrick to
drive out of Ireland, but thankfully his religious conversions led the way for us to act like a bunch
of drunk a-holes once a year in his honor.
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