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Happy Saint Patrick’s Day

Meghan Veselik | Monday, March 17, 2008

As we all celebrate our Irish heritage today, the feast day of St. Patrick and the anniversary of his death, I think many of us forget what we are celebrating and how it is celebrated outside the traditional festivities on many college campuses.

St. Patrick wasn’t Irish at all. He was born in Britain to a wealthy family around 387, and his real name was Maewyn Succat. At sixteen, he was captured by Irish raiders attacking his family’s estate. Maewyn spent six years in captivity as a shepherd away from people, deepening in his Christian faith.

After more than six years, he had a dream in which a voice he believed was God’s told him to leave Ireland. He walked over 200 miles to the Irish coast before escaping back home. Once back home, he experienced a second revelation in a dream where an angel told him to return to Ireland as a missionary. He started religious training, was ordained a priest, took the name of Patrick, and was sent to Ireland to minister the Christians already living there and to convert other Irishmen from their native pagan religion.

March 17 has been observed as a religious holiday by the Irish for thousands of years but has moved on to become much more. Since it usually falls in Lent, Irish families would traditionally go to church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. The Lenten ban against eating meat was waived and people would drink, feast on Irish bacon and cabbage, and dance.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in New York City, not in Ireland. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through the city on March 17, 1762. In 1848, a number of New York Irish aid societies decided to unite their parades and formed one New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Today it is the largest parade in the U.S., with more than 150,000 people involved.

Obviously, one of the most important figures of St. Patrick’s Day and the Irish in general is the leprechaun. The Irish originally called these figures “lobaircin,” meaning “small-bodied fellow.” In Celtic folktales, these little figures were often cranky tricksters protecting their legendary treasure. The inclusion of these figures in the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day is actually credited to the film Darby O’Gill & the Little People, released by Walt Disney in 1959. Giving a view of the leprechaun as a cheerful, friendly figure is an American invention which then spread to become a symbol of Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day.

In the end, you may just view today as a reason to go to class drunk, or go out and celebrate with your friends. But in case you did read all of this, I hope you learned a little more about today, and happy St. Patrick’s Day!