St. Patrick was born in 387 CE in Great Britain, not Ireland, and he was considered a pagan for the early years of his life. When he was 16, he was captured by Irish marauders and taken back to Ireland as a slave. Over the next 6 years, he worked for his Irish masters as a herdsman, and it was during this period that his faith in a god grew. After this period, he was able to escape and return home, where he dedicated his life to his faith and Christianity. Years later, he returned to Ireland as an ordained bishop, spreading the word of God, training others to share the faith, and baptizing thousands. He also established monasteries, churches, schools, and evaded arrest numerous times. Patrick died on March 17th, 461, and was canonized in the 12th century. Of course, this is all somewhat of a legend- there is still debate if the story is actually the combined tale of two men, Palladius and Patrick, and his actual death may be closer to the late 5th century. Some legends that surround St. Patrick are that he was able to raise the dead and drove snakes out of the country- although there isn’t really evidence for this. (Of course, most of this is mythology, but its still a nice story. For a great short video on the man and day check out this video: Bone Up On Your St. Patty’s History)
Now onto the holiday of St. Patrick’s day. The associations with Guinness and green beer are modern changes to what the holiday originally represented. The shamrock is associated with the original Saint, as it is said he shared a parable about the holy trinity, using the shamrock as an example to explain this to the pagans. The holiday began as a celebration and feast on the day of his death to celebrate his religious work in the 17th century. It became an official holiday in Ireland in 1903, and parades began to show independent Irish pride in the 1930′s. However its real start as a major event was in the 1990′s when it became a day of Irish national pride. In the US, it has been celebrated as a day of Irish pride for immigrants since the 18th century, however this bears little comparison with what it is often seen as today.
St. Patrick’s Day was originally about celebrating one’s religious and cultural identity. A good way to learn about expression of identity is through bioarchaeology. Scott’s (2006) dissertation on the cemetery on Omey Island, Galway, analyzes the expression of identity in this early medieval Irish population. She argues that through burial practices, individuals were able to “participate in ritual practices which delineated their social roles, bound them together in a local community, and affiliated them with the larger early Christian community in Ireland” (2006:8). She notes that Christianity was first introduced into Ireland through contact with Roman Britain either through trade, raids, or settlement. By 431 CE, a community of Christians was large enough to warrant the Pope to send Bishop Palladius to Ireland.
In order to understand this early Christian community buried on Omey Island, Scott (2006) examined the burials of 309 individuals. The majority were buried as extended supine inhumations oriented east to west without grave goods. A few were buried with flexed legs and some were oriented in other directions. A few minor grave goods were recovered including beads and white stones. It was thought that the site was related to a monastery, but remains of the building were not found. However, there are other Christian features including a church found 100 m south of the cemetery, carved and decorated stone crosses, and a holy well. Analysis of the skeletons revealed equal proportions of males and females, but seemed to be skewed towards older juveniles and adults- younger juveniles and older adults were low. Craniometrics and non-metric traits were employed to determine genetic relatedness- while this can be environmental it can also reveal genetic affinities. The high percentage of co-occurring traits suggests that the cemetery belonged to a closely related community.
The population would have lived and farmed on the Connemara coast adjacent to the island. They lived in dispersed single family farmsteads, but Scott (2006) hypothesizes that they maintained a community identity by sharing and participating in rituals on Omey Island. The visits to the island for religious holidays and funerals would have reinforced ties with one another as well as their affiliation with the broader Christian community. While the burials at Omey do seem to reflect the standard Christian burial- many also diverge in the presence of white stones, a potential indicator of purity. This tradition is seen throughout the British Isles as an indicator of Christianity so it was likely a popular but not church sanctioned act.
How does this relate to St. Patrick’s Day? Expression of identity is always important, but especially important at death. The people of the Connemara coast expressed their communal and religious identity by burying their dead and conducting ritual acts on Omey Island. It brought them together, created shared experiences and memories, and gave them a sense of local and broader affiliation. St. Patrick’s Day is meant to do this for the living- it is a celebration of identity and religion (though the religious aspect has waned in some areas). Personally, I think it is a time to create your own shared experiences and memories with family and friends. This weekend I will be celebrating my own Irish roots by having friends over for corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and Guinness.
Scott 2006.Social identity in early medieval Ireland: A bioarchaeology of the early Christian cemetery on Omey Island, Co. Galway. University of Pennsylvania, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing.