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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Saint Patrick’s Day Questions, Trivia, and Folklore

Leprechauns are not dwarves. They are faeries. A word of advice: don't mess with Irish faeries.
Leprechauns are not dwarves. They are faeries. A word of advice: don't mess with Irish faeries.

I hope you had a good Saint Patrick’s Day yesterday. This year, for my annual St. Paddy’s post, I want to do just a conversational question and answer piece on aspects of the holiday and some misconceptions about it. As always, I’ll sneak in some folklore and maybe a bit of trivia. All good? Right. Here we go.

How do you say “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day” in Irish?

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit! Alternatively, you can say, Bennachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh. This translates to “Saint Patrick’s Day blessings on you.”

Who was this guy, Patrick, anyway and why does he rate a holiday?

Patrick was a priest, missionary, and bishop who lived in 5th century Europe. He is known as the “Apostle to the Irish,” and is credited for converting the inhabitants of Ireland to Christianity. The Irish have long considered him the patron saint of Ireland. There is some debate among scholars as to where he came from. He often (vaguely) is said to have been a missionary “from the continent,” but some scholars argue that he was Welsh. His name indicates he came from a wealthy family that had been either connected with or influenced by the Romans. The name Patrick derives from the word patrician.

Stand with Ukraine and against tyranny.
Stand with Ukraine and against tyranny.

Wait. So, he wasn’t Irish?

Nope. Patrick, as a young teen, was abducted by Irish raiders who brought him back to Ireland to live as a slave. He worked tending farm animals. After a few years, he escaped, returned home, and eventually became a priest. After having a dream that the Irish were calling to him, he returned to Ireland as a missionary.

At the time, the Irish predominately practiced a form of Celtic animism (click here to find out more about the ancient Irish religion). Patrick used a shamrock to teach about the Holy Trinity, debated with the druids, and is said to have converted all the Irish to Christianity. Of course, in reality, it didn’t happen overnight, and some scholars say some of the Irish already practiced the religion.

The notable thing about the Irish conversion is that it, historically, was a fairly bloodless one. The Irish were won over and embraced the new religion, perhaps because there were some parallels between it and the beliefs they already held. Also, the Christian Church merely Christianized many of the religious customs and feast days the Irish were used to practicing. Check out my post Winter Solstice and Christmas Evergreensto see an example of how customs from the old religion were transferred to the new.

What about Saint Brigid, co-patron saint of Ireland? Why isn’t she celebrated on March 17th?

St. Brigid is the co-patron of Ireland with Patrick. Her feast day is February 1st.
St. Brigid is the co-patron of Ireland with Patrick. Her feast day is February 1st.

Saint Brigid is indeed the co-patron saint of Ireland along with Patrick. She has been considered so for ages but the government of the Republic of Ireland recently announced that starting in 2023, Ireland will have a new bank holiday (for Americans, that’s the equivalent of a federal holiday) in her honor. It will take place in February, though, as Brigid’s Day has long been celebrated on February 1st. The saint, known as Brigid of Kildare, is said to have founded the first monastery for women in Ireland. She was a contemporary of St, Patrick. If she existed. There is some debate about this among scholars. Some say the saint’s legend is a Christianization of the Celtic goddess, Brigid, who was worshipped throughout the Celtic world, and whose feast day was February 1st. In Ireland, the main shrine dedicated to the goddess was in Kildare. Read more about the saint and the goddess by clicking here.

St. Patrick’s is a religious holiday? It doesn’t seem like it.

In the U.S., it’s not. In Ireland, until relatively recently, March 17th was a solemn feast day. There weren’t parades and parties, and so forth. All that started in America and traveled over to Ireland. Eventually. In the late 20th century.

It’s an American holiday then?

The feast day, no. The holiday, yes. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in 1601 in Saint Augustine, Florida. It was organized by the pastor of the then-Spanish colony, who just happened to be Irish. But the trend towards celebrating the day with music, parties, and parades came in the 19th century. Irish immigrants who had fled to the U.S. to escape the Famine were both homesick and oppressed by American nativism. In response, they bonded together, began wearing the green, and playing traditional on St. Patrick’s Day to take pride in their Irish identity. March 17th grew in popularity in the U.S., and, with the decrease of anti-Irish sentiment, became celebrated by Americans not of Irish descent. It’s now a celebration of all things Irish. Or it’s supposed to be. Some people, as with most holidays, just use it as an excuse to drink.

Did you know the Irish traditionally didn’t associate the color green with Saint Patrick?

The Irish associated St. Patrick with the color blue, not green.
The Irish associated St. Patrick with the color blue, not green.

The Irish associated blue with Saint Patrick but, in the U.S., wearing the green became a symbol of Irish pride. Of course, green is a part of the Irish flag along with orange and white. In Ireland, the colors orange and green have quite a history with each color representing different groups and white symbolizing peace between them. I don’t want to get into all that on this post, so I leave it to you to investigate, should you care to.

Is corned beef and cabbage an authentic Irish dish?

No, it’s American. The Irish eat cabbage, but corned beef is a U.S. thing. Scholars think the Irish immigrants might have bought it because corned beef used to be an inexpensive cut of meat that, perhaps, reminded them of bacon.

Are shamrocks the national symbol of Ireland?

No, the harp is (and not because it's the Guinness logo).

Is a leprechaun a gnome or a dwarf and, if I catch him, will I get his pot of gold?

No, to all of the above. Leprechauns are faeries and they’re tricksters. Mostly, they just want to be left alone to make shoes, drink, and guard their wealth. If you catch or corner one, they’ll say anything to get out of the situation. If a leprechaun promises to lead you to his pot of gold, don’t believe it. He’ll play with you and you might find yourself altogether lost while he slips away. If he offers to give you money to let you go, here’s what will happen. The silver will return to him once he’s away. (He is magical, after all). If he gives you gold, once he’s escaped, the nuggets will crumble into ashes. A word of advice: don’t mess with faeries.

What do Erin go bragh, Cead Mile Failte, and Póg mo thóin mean?

Erin go bragh means “Ireland forever.” Cead Mile Failte translates to “A hundred thousand welcomes.” The PG version of Póg mo thóin is “Kiss my backside.”

Speaking of Irish phrases, a word or two about St. Paddy’s Day merch.

Most images on St. Paddy's Day mech, like the shamrock above, are positive. Some of them though, are disturbing.
Most images on St. Paddy's Day mech, like the shamrock above, are positive. Some of them, though, are disturbing.

Retailers, at least in the U.S., annually cash in on Saint Patrick’s Day through extensive merchandising. That’s fine. I’m all for free enterprise. However, perpetuating racial or ethnic stereotypes is not okay. Every year, though, on the very day that’s supposed to celebrate the Irish, people in the U.S. walk around wearing reminders of anti-Irish bigotry.

I’m not saying all St. Patrick’s Day merch is bad. Most of it is great. There are lots of t-shirts and mugs with Erin go bragh, cute leprechauns, shamrocks, and even an occasional harp (yay!). “Kiss Me. I’m Irish” and even a Lucky Charms-type leprechaun raising a glass of the black stuff are fine. But shirts with phrases such as “Not Everyone Can be Irish. Someone Needs to Drive,” or with images of drunken leprechauns with simian-like faces are not.

On a positive note, my favorite St. Paddy’s Day t-shirt this year:

A green silhouette of Darth Vader with the phrase, “I find your lack of green disturbing.”

Finally, is it Paddy or Patty?

My Irish friends assure me it’s Paddy. This is the diminutive of the Irish form of Patrick, Pádraig. I understand the American impulse to use the t’s. After all, many guys named Patrick are called Pat. But, while you may have met some women named Patricia who go by Patty, how many guys named Patty have you encountered? Of course, if you want to refer to the patron saint of Ireland by a word used to describe a piece of hamburger….

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Slan go foil!

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