Saint Patrick’s legacy of bringing the cross to the Celts

As this millennium passed, the legend of Saint Patrick has grown in exaggeration typical of Irish tradition of folklore and myth. Yet, as in the case of most stories cultivated through the ages, there is a bit of truth, or at least, sense of truth that began the story in the first place.

The Catholic apostle of Ireland, known to have banished snakes from an island that, in fact, had no reptiles of the kind, instead was the first missionary of the church charged with baptizing and eradicating the pagan indigenous religions of the Celtic peoples. By bringing the cross, he banished “the snake” — or what the Christian world perceived as the devil and paganism.

St. Patrick, born in Scotland to wealthy land owners, was stolen away from his home by Irish marauders and held in captivity as a slave on the west side of the island for nearly six years. During this time, Patrick tended fields and flocks of grazing animals, and turned to his religion to bring him solace. He vowed to God that he would return one day as a free man to serve in liberating the Druid people from what the church perceived as their own spiritual bondage. He also became fluent in Gaelic/Celtic language and Druid culture, something that would serve him well in future years during his religious mission.

St. Patrick fulfilled his promise and returned to Ireland around 433 A.D., now as an ordained priest and with the confidence of Pope St. Celestine I. When he initially faced opposition by the indigenous people of Ireland, Patrick quickly realized he would have to assimilate the belief system of the people into the symbols of Christianity. Knowing the traditions well, he succeeded in making this new God seem strangely familiar to Ireland’s people. The Celtic cross, with a radiant sun at the intersection, is credited to Patrick, who felt putting one of the most powerful pagan symbols inside the Christian, made it easier for the people to worship. It was also said that Patrick took the shamrock, a beloved plant that was used in the vernal equinox celebration by pagan Celts, and transformed it into “a natural trinity” using it in Easter celebrations at springtime.

Patrick continued conversion work by the founding of Ireland’s first Christian churches in every county on the island, as well as performing hundreds of baptisms. A wooden St. Patrick’s Church stood on a hill in Dublin from the fifth century to about 1191, when the church was raised to the status of cathedral. The present building, the largest church in Ireland, was built between 1191 and 1270. The cathedral has remained a symbol of the beginning of Ireland’s Catholic Church, where famous Irish writers (Jonathon Swift served as deacon) and religious beer-makers (the Guinness family) have supported, worshiped in, and now, are entombed.

The St. Patrick’s Day celebrated today is almost entirely an American invention. Though originating from the anniversary of Patrick’s death in 466 A.D., the beer, green clothing, and leprechauns have all been added to the cultural soup as years passed. Proud Irish-Catholic immigrants began the festival shortly after arriving from the potato famine of the late 1840s to a very anti-Irish eastern coast of America. March 17, was chosen as a launching point for the jovial holiday that celebrates all things Irish. Paddy’s Day is a chance to get together with friends and family, cook up some cabbage, mushypeas and soda bread, drink a Guinness or two, and remember the old country — a far cry from the religious holiday that marks the death of Ireland’s first Christian.

• Keya Keita, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 or

Sources: The New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia; The History Channel; Catechism of The Catholic Church; St. Patrick’s Cathedral tour brochure.


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