Soon we will be celebrating the feast day of Maewyn Succat. Don’t recognize the name? You might be more familiar with the Roman version, Magonus Saccatus. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Here’s a hint: he added “Patricius” to his name when he was ordained a priest, and later simplified that to “Patrick” when he returned as a missionary to the island where he had been held captive as a teenager.

Much of what we know about St. Patrick is legend, but we do still have some of his writings, and there is evidence that he changed the belief system of many people in Ireland by incorporating many of their pagan traditions into new Christian traditions. Did he use the shamrock to teach new Christians about the Holy Trinity? Probably not. In fact, there’s more evidence that he drove the snakes from Ireland than that he used the shamrock as a teaching tool.

Who Was St. Patrick?

Depending on which historian you believe, Maewyn was born in what is now Wales, or Scotland, or England or France in about the year 386 C.E. His family was well-off, which means they probably collaborated well with the Romans who were in power over the region at the time. In fact, he said his father was a tax collector and deacon, and his grandfather was a priest. Despite the fact that he must have been introduced to religion, in Patrick’s writings, however, he reveals that during his youth, he “did not know the true God.”

When he was about 16, he and “thousands of others” were taken captive by Gaelic raiders probably from the Dál Riata kingdom. He was brought to northeast Ireland and forced to tend sheep in the wilderness. He later said that it was during this time “among foreigners” that he realized “how little” he was and that there that the Lord opened his awareness to his lack of faith. “So,” he says,” I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God,” and God protected him. After six years in Ireland, he said he was told it dream it was time to escape from his captors and made his way back to Roman civilization. Eventually, he studied under priests in what is now France, and was ordained to the priesthood.

Years before his ordination, he said he had a dream in which the Irish people he lived with for six years appealed to him to come back . So finally he returned in the company of other missionaries. Although some of his writings survive, they are very vague when talking about his conversion efforts in Ireland. This may be because his audience already knew what he’d done, and he just wanted to tell them about the blessings of his own early life and conversion. There are also those who suggest that many of the conversion efforts attributed to Patrick actually should be shared with a man named Palladius, who was sent by the pope as the first bishop to Ireland in 431 C. E.

Use of the Shamrock

Did St. Patrick use the shamrock to show pagans how our God has three parts—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and yet remains a single God? The shamrock has long been associated with St. Patrick and his ministry—but not as long it should have been to make it an accurate legend. The earliest mention of the story of St. Patrick using the shamrock to teach pagans was written by English botanists in about 1571—well over a thousand years after Patrick’s death. Apparently the number three was sacred to many Celtic societies in Ireland and the Irish had their own triple deities, so this might have made it easier to convert some of the Irish by dwelling on the three persons of God. A plant whose primary feature is a crown of three leaves would be a natural teaching tool.

The shamrock is not actually a single specific plant, but refers to a young clover, of which there are many varieties. It seems that in some parts of Ireland, the plant that men typically pin onto their lapels for St. Patrick’s Day is not even clover but wood sorrel. Patrick did not mention plants in his writings, which he might have done if he had relied on the shamrock frequently as a teaching tool. There is no evidence to suggest that he used it, but there’s no good reason to assume he didn’t either.

Driving the Snakes from Ireland

Along with the legend of the shamrock, stories also credit St. Patrick with driving all of the snakes out of Ireland. Scientists have long pointed out that there have never been snakes in Ireland, which makes the legend laughable. However, so many religious lessons are told through parables and metaphors—in Christianity as well as other religions—that the story of driving the snakes from Ireland may have more truth to it than it appears at first glance. The devil is often depicted as a snake, so in convincing people to put aside sinful ways and follow the one true God, Patrick may have driven many “snakes” away from the shores of Ireland.

Harp and shamrock pattern, Beleek china (photo by Kate Dolan)The Shamrock is Now the Official Trademark of Ireland

In 1985, the Irish government adopted the shamrock the official emblem of the country. In that year, they also started using St. Patrick’s Day as a marketing tool. When I was an intern in the Irish parliament in 1986, we could send St. Patrick’s Day postcards to the U.S. for free. While the Irish government was trying to get Americans to come to Ireland for the holiday, however, airlines were having contests to get the Irish to go to New York, where the parades are parties are actually much bigger.

In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was once a holy day where pubs were closed, but the Irish have become a much more secular nation since gaining their independence from Great Britain, and the Catholic Church does not hold as much power over the people as it once did. So the saint’s feast is a party day there just like everywhere else. However, before I drink my Smickwick’s or Tullamore Dew to celebrate the day this year, I’m going to use the shamrock to teach the kids in our church about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Regardless of whether St. Patrick used it as a teaching tool, it’s still a good one.

Hope You Enjoy St. Patrick’s Day this year!

_____________________________

Information in this article came from a huge array of sources, including some books I combed through to write a term paper nearly 40 years ago. Some easily accessible sources include:

If you are interested in stories of men who behaved badly after leaving Ireland, you might like my books Restitution (about an ex-pat dishonest peddler who becomes a spy in colonial Maryland) or Langley’s Choice (an anglo-Irish sailor who’s been kicked out of the Royal Navy makes a mess of being a privateer and eventually turns pirate.)