Loretta Barnard

The Origin of St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is again upon us, but what’s it all about? For those of you who yelled out “potatoes” or “Guinness,” see me after class.


In the fifth century the story goes, St. Patrick, actually a Welshman, drove the snakes out of Ireland. As there have never been snakes in that country, the story should be interpreted as symbolic. Snakes represent the Devil, so Patrick drove Satan from Ireland and Christianized the people. Christianity brought learning, monasteries functioning as centers of education, culture, and enlightenment.

It is St. Patrick’s death back in 461CE that is commemorated on Ireland’s national day. But as well as remembering the long-dead saint, March 17th is also a day that celebrates the resilience of Ireland, its culture and creativity. On the surface, you may enjoy one too many pints of Guinness, but the day has a deeper significance than wearing green and wishing people the top o’ the morning.

Here’s a very potted history of Ireland, a small country invaded over centuries by Celts, Vikings, and the British, and forced to adapt to unwanted changes.

For hundreds of years, kings were elected by their clans and a strong legal system headed by judges kept law and order across the land. The Norman “colonization” of the island in the twelfth century imposed the feudal system on the Irish and many historians point to this period as marking the beginning of the Anglo-Irish conflict.

That conflict worsened when Henry VIII forced Catholics off their lands and seized church assets. By then, 1,000 years after St. Patrick’s death, Catholicism was an integral part of the Irish psyche and the people resisted the rise of Protestantism facing up to the might of Britain as well as they were able. Meanwhile, in the north, land confiscated by the English was given to Protestant Scots, thereby laying the groundwork for the long friction between Catholics and Protestants.

The English forcefully maintained control over the country, intolerant of even the slightest sign of rebelliousness. In the late seventeenth century, they went so far as to ban Catholics from being able to own land, enter certain professions, including teaching, or hold any public office. Many worked on farms for their English owners, living in abject poverty while landowners reaped the benefits and Britain’s economy burgeoned.

In a particularly cruel move, the British imposed English as the official language, outlawing the Irish language. By the nineteenth century, only small pockets of native speakers remained, but they steadfastly continued to teach their children, ensuring the survival of their tongue. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that Irish was taught in schools again.

By the end of the eighteenth century, there was little love between the Irish and the British, and Irish national sentiment was growing apace. In 1798, united by ideals of equality and freedom, the United Irishmen, a group made up of both Catholics and Protestants, rose up against their oppressors. The movement failed, the leaders were hanged, and the British shut down the Irish parliament, making Irish politicians serve in Westminster. The result: more bitterness against the English.

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During the Potato Famine of the 1840s, over one million people starved to death. Perhaps a million other people left Ireland for good, sailing to America, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, fleeing not just penury but oppression. (Irish immigrants celebrating their Irishness in other lands made St. Patrick’s Day the most well known national day in the world.)

Famine, the poverty cycle, and the push for land reform continued to feed nationalist feeling and many lobbied for Home Rule, which would give Ireland some independence in national matters. The idea was broadly acceptable but northern Protestants didn’t want to be a minority group in a Catholic country and threatened civil war. Meanwhile, others had become more militant and demanded complete independence for Ireland. Taking the lead were the Fenians, who over Easter 1916 occupied the post office in Dublin declaring Ireland a republic.

The British quashed this uprising quickly, executed the leaders and arrested thousands of activists, thus breeding further resentment against them. In 1919, the Irish declared their own parliament in Dublin, and when Britain sent troops to put a stop to this, it set off the Irish War of Independence. It was a ferociously violent time, but in 1921 Ireland was divided into two – Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Civil war erupted in 1921 because many in the Irish Republican Army (the military wing of the Fenians) weren’t happy with the new arrangement, but in 1922 Ireland was finally divided.

There have been many political ups and downs since then. In 1949, Ireland finally became an independent republic. Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom.

The bloody period in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles (1968-1998) exacerbated disharmony between nationalist Catholics and loyalist Protestants, but political compromise was eventually reached. You can read more about The Troubles here.

This is bare bones Irish history, but hopefully it gives you a feeling for how the past has shaped the present. For too long, the Irish suffered under the rule of oppressors, people who sought to eradicate Irish culture, language, freedom of religion, freedom in general. Their determination to maintain their heritage and their destiny feeds their sense of nationalism and pride.

There’s a great deal to be proud of. From the strikingly beautiful illuminated manuscripts created centuries ago by Irish monks, to John Holland, the engineer who built the first submarine ever commissioned by the United States Navy, Ireland has produced great thinkers, writers, musicians, artists, poets, and scientists.

For a small nation, Ireland gave the world literary giants Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, Edna O’Brien, Sebastian Barry, Colm Toibín, Martin McDonagh.

From the music of legendary harpist Turlough Carolan through to Van Morrison, U2, The Cranberries, The Chieftains, Enya, Bill Whelan, and jazzmen Ronan Guilfoyle and Louis Stewart; actors Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Liam Neeson, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, Maureen O’Hara, Brenda Fricker, Gabriel Byrne, Sinéad Cusack, Cillian Murphy; artists Jack Butler Yeats, Francis Bacon, Norah McGuinness; and scientists including pioneering chemist Robert Boyle and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Walton – Ireland has more than held its own on the world stage.

So this St. Patrick’s Day, shun the stereotypes. The day is about more than just the craic.


Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is an Australian freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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