Seeker Archives

Who Was St. Patrick?

The truth is, much of Saint Patrick's life is a mystery.

For thousands of years, Irish Catholics have traditionally celebrated St. Patrick's Day by attending church in the morning and celebrating in the afternoon with a huge feast, honoring Ireland's patron saint. Even though March 17 falls in the middle of Lent when Catholics were forbidden to eat meat, this was waived in Ireland for feasting - mostly on cabbage and Irish bacon, according to

But who was Saint Patrick? The truth is, much of his life is a mystery. One of the most famous legends of St. Patrick describes how he banished all snakes from the Emerald Isle into the ocean and they drowned. Philip M. Freeman, an expert in Celtic and classical studies at Washington University in St. Louis claims in his book, "St. Patrick of Ireland," that this legend is false.

What is known about St. Patrick is that he was born in England to wealthy parents near the end of the 4th century. At age 15, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates from his parents' estate in the Roman province of Britain, and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he spent six years in captivity, according to Freeman. After his escape, Patrick wrote in a letter of an "angel" speaking to him in a dream, telling him to become a missionary in Ireland, according to

After combing through two of Patrick's letters, Freeman confirms that Patrick attended training to become a priest in Ireland and was eventually made a bishop. He converted many of the Irish people from paganism to Christianity. St. Patrick is believed to have died on March 17, around 460 A.D., and many villagers across Ireland mourned his death on this day. From that, grew a celebration.

Like many other holidays, such as Halloween, St. Patrick's Day was recognized as a national holiday in the United States after thousands of Irish people immigrated to the country during the potato famine of the 1880s, bringing their traditions with them. Also like many other holidays, what began as small community affairs, St. Patrick's Day celebrations have exploded into full-on extravaganzas in the United States.

The first U.S. St. Patrick's Day parade took place in New York City on March 17, 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through the city. Now, over 100 cities across the country hold public festivities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, about 34.7 million Americans identify themselves as having Irish ancestry.

While Chicago holds bragging rights for dying their river a brilliant green in celebration, New York City claims to have the largest Irish parade. Even Washington, D.C. has joined the fray with the White House by adding bright green dye to the North and South lawn fountains for the second year in a row this year, according to The Atlantic.

St. Patrick, himself, probably would have found this all laughable (or appalling) because the patron saint's color was not green, but blue, according to research at Tuffs University. Green became the staple St. Patrick's Day color much later, taken from the Emerald Isle's association with green hills and the shamrock, which St. Patrick used to explain the Holy Trinity to his followers.

And what's a celebration without knocking back a few with your chums? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans consumed 21.6 gallons of beer per capita annually in 2004. On St. Patrick's Day, for the truly enthusiastic, 47,984 American pubs and bars advertise serving green beer on this holy day.


Photo credits from top: Andreas F. Borchert/Wikimedia Commons, Massachusetts State Society

Detail of stained glass window depicting St. Patrick from St. Benin's Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland.