Every year, on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in earnest all over the world. Although the holiday has become synonymous with wearing green and downing pints of Guinness among other libations, there’s much more to it. The festivities surrounding the holiday honor the life and teachings of Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint who is believed to have been born as Maewyn Succat and later adopted the moniker by which he’s known today.
But what exactly is Patrick’s story and how do we separate the fact from fiction when it comes to the traditions and religious symbols he inspired hundreds of years ago? Here are seven lesser-known facts about the national apostle of Ireland.
Saint Patrick wasn’t Irish.
The biggest misconception about Saint Patrick was that he was Irish. Born in England circa 385 AD, Saint Patrick didn’t make his way to Ireland until Irish pirates kidnapped him at age 16 and sold him into slavery. Later, he dedicated his life to converting the Irish to Christianity.
He taught himself to read and write.
Because of his enslavement, it’s believed Saint Patrick missed out on education opportunities such as learning to read and write in his youth. Saint Patrick’s education seemed limited to religious teachings where he studied under a French bishop and was eventually ordained. Still, lack of a formal education embarrassed Saint Patrick, who is believed to have taught himself to read and write beyond his basic Latin. According to a blog on the Oxford University Press’s website, Saint Patrick’s success as a missionary was due to tenacity and “dogged determination,” even in the face of uncertainty and second guesses about his own self-worth.
Some believe that Saint Patrick created the Celtic cross.
Although the exact origins of the Celtic cross remain uncertain, some believe that Saint Patrick created the symbol. The Celtic Cross features a circle, which some refer to as a halo or circle of light, around the center of a traditional Christian cross. It is frequently seen on tombstones in cemeteries, sometimes with intricate designs carved onto its surface. It is said that Saint Patrick created the Celtic cross by embedding pagan symbolism—the circle of light—to help him convert pagans to Christianity.
Saint Patrick used a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity.
The shamrock (or three-leaf clover, as it’s often called) has long been an Irish symbol, and according to Time, is also recognized as the unofficial national flower of Ireland. According to some, Saint Patrick used the shamrock as an aid to explain the Holy Trinity to people he tried converting to Christianity. In fact, botanist Caleb Threlkeld’s 1726 treatise on native Irish flora mentions Saint Patrick’s use of the shamrock as a religious tool. Although the religious meaning Saint Patrick might’ve applied to the plant hundreds of years ago depicted the three holiest entities in Christianity, today the shamrock endures as an image of Irish pride.
The original color for St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t green.
Green wasn’t the original color used to represent St. Patrick—it was blue. After the Order of Saint Patrick was established in 1783, the organization’s color had to stand out from those that preceded it. And since dark green was already taken, the Order of Saint Patrick went with blue.
There were no snakes for Saint Patrick to banish in Ireland.
According to folklore, Saint Patrick chased away snakes in Ireland, thus protecting townspeople from the mysterious creatures and sending them to the sea. However, Ireland didn’t have snakes at the time. Surrounded by icy water, Ireland was the last place that these cold-blooded reptiles would want to go. It’s much more reasonable to think that the “snakes” that St. Patrick banished were representative of the Druids and Pagans in Ireland since they were considered evil.
Saint Patrick was never canonized by a pope.
Despite his name, it’s worth noting that a pope never canonized Saint Patrick, making his saintly status somewhat questionable. In all fairness, Saint Patrick wasn’t the only saint that didn’t go through a proper canonization. In the Catholic Church’s first millennium, there wasn’t a formal canonization process at all, so most saints from that period were given the title if they were either martyrs or seen as extraordinarily holy.