Shamrocks, Bagpipes and Guinness

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with these fascinating facts.

Today, on St. Patrick's Day, millions of people will don green and celebrate the Irish with parades, good cheer, and perhaps a pint of beer.

But few St. Patrick's Day revellers have a clue about St. Patrick, the historical figure.

Who was the man behind St. Patrick's Day?

The real St. Patrick wasn't even Irish.

He was born around A.D. 390 to an aristocratic Christian family with a townhouse, a country villa, and plenty of slaves. Several pieces of evidence suggest he was born in Wales. 

A spectator watches as people dye the Chicago River green ahead of the city's St. Patrick's Day parade in 2013 [Image: Paul Beaty, AP]

What's more, Patrick professed no interest in Christianity as a young boy, notes classics professor Philip Freeman of Luther College in Iowa.

At 16, Patrick's world turned.

He was kidnapped and sent overseas to tend sheep as a slave in the chilly, mountainous countryside of Ireland for seven years.

"It was just horrible for him," Freeman said. "But he got a religious conversion while he was there and became a very deeply believing Christian."

The Sydney Opera House turned green for St. Patrick’s Day {Image: Creative Commons]

St. Patrick's Disembodied Voices

According to folklore, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family.

The voice then told him to go back to Ireland.

"He gets ordained as a priest from a bishop, and goes back and spends the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity," Freeman said.

Patrick's work in Ireland was tough—he was constantly beaten by thugs, harassed by the Irish royalty, and admonished by his British superiors. After he died on March 17, 461, Patrick was largely forgotten.

But slowly, mythology grew around Patrick, and centuries later he was honoured as the patron saint of Ireland, Freeman noted.

No Snakes in Ireland

Another St. Patrick myth is the claim that he banished snakes from Ireland. It's true no snakes exist on the island today, Freeman said – but they never did.

Ireland, after all, is surrounded by icy ocean waters – much too cold to allow snakes to migrate from Britain or anywhere else.

A man dressed as a leprechaun grins for the camera in New Orleans [Image: Taylor S. Kennedy, National Geographic]

Since snakes often represent evil in literature, "when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland [and] brought in a new age," Freeman said.

The snake myth, the shamrock story, and other tales were likely spread by well-meaning monks centuries after St. Patrick's death, Freeman said.

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