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He Was British, Not Irish! And Other Things You Didn’t Know About Saint Patrick

We celebrate March 17th with green outfits and beer. But is this authentically Irish?

March 16, 2023
by Margie Cullen
(Illustration using Canva)

“Most of what you will find on the internet is rubbish,” says Dan Melia when asked about the popular notion of Saint Patrick. An associate professor emeritus in rhetoric and Celtic studies at Berkeley, Melia’s road to Patrick expertise was not a linear one. While his family were 19th century Irish immigrants to Fall River, Massachusetts, they never made a big deal out of St. Patrick’s Day. At Harvard, he was amazed to discover works of Irish medieval literature that had barely been studied. Melia immediately became interested, and to the surprise of his parents, made a career out of it. He is currently working on a book about St. Patrick’s rhetoric.

According to Melia, there are a lot of myths about Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Let us enumerate. 

  1. Patrick was real.

“He’s a real person,” says Melia. “We have two things written by him which were unquestionably written by him.” He is known for two short works: Confessio and Letter to Coroticus. Confessio is a spiritual autobiography, while Letter to Coroticus denounces British mistreatment of Irish Christians. 

  1. History gave us two Patricks.

There are two St. Patricks, Melia argued at a 2012 Celtic conference at UCLA. “First, the Patrick who appears in the two genuine Patrician documents … and second, the Patrick that we seem to find everywhere else, in copious medieval and modern biographies, encyclopedias, and wiki entries.” 

When Melia asks his students when they think he lived, they often guess as late as 1200 A.D., but it was actually several hundred years earlier. The second Patrick is said to be born around 388 A.D., but sometimes as late as 410–20. Based on Patrick’s writings, Melia is more convinced by an “early Patrick,” one born around 350 A.D.

  1. Patrick wasn’t Irish.

He was British! According to Melia, Patrick was born a minor nobleman in what is now England, or perhaps Wales or Scotland, which at the time was part of the Roman Empire. His father was likely a member of the curiales, who were responsible for imperial tax collection. His family might have owned slaves.

  1. Patrick came to Ireland as a slave himself.

When Patrick was 15 or 16, he was taken by Irish raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland. He was in bondage for about six years until he managed to escape on a trading ship. The ship went astray, but he was eventually reunited with his parents.

After his return to Britain, he had a dream, described in the best known passage of the Confessio. “An angel came to him in a dream and said, your friends in Ireland—meaning the people with whom he was enslaved—want you to come back,” explains Melia. Patrick didn’t immediately heed the command, but eventually did, returning to convert the pagans.

  1. Patrick didn’t chase the snakes out of Ireland.

“Historically, there are no snakes in Ireland,” says Melia. “So they didn’t need to be driven out.” 

The legend comes from a story about Patrick “fasting against God” and ringing a special bell to drive the demons out of Ireland. Down the centuries, demons evolved into snakes. 

Another common myth is that Patrick explained the Holy Trinity by using the three leaves of a shamrock. More rubbish, says Melia. 

  1. It’s not leprechauns, plural.

According to Melia, in traditional Irish stories there was only one leprechaun, much like there’s only one Santa Claus. 

“Popular folklore need not make logical sense, but the story about catching the leprechaun and making him reveal the hiding place of gold treasure is kind of at odds with there being thousands of them running around,” said Melia.

As for the image of leprechauns as little people, Melia says it comes from a kind of fairy found in Irish folklore who are habitually referred to as the “good people” (so as not to offend them). 

The leprechaun was human sized, not little like the guy on the Lucky Charms box. 

  1. St. Patrick’s Day as we know it came from Boston. 

“St. Patrick’s Day is an American invention,” explains Melia. As late as the 1970s, St. Patrick’s Day was like Sunday in Ireland—a holy day on which families went to church and the pubs were only open for three hours. There were occasional parades and festivities in Dublin and other bigger cities, but, according to Melia, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was in Boston, organized by Irish American soldiers in order to distinguish themselves from English and Welsh troops.

In the late ’80s/early ’90s, Dublin began to have big parties and parades in honor of the holiday, partially to entice Americans to the country, and partially because Ireland, like many places, has become more secular. 

Today in America, of course, one can find St. Patrick’s Day festivities almost anywhere you go.

Now go hoist a pint of green-dyed Harp. Erin go bragh!

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