Saint Patrick: The Cantankerous Hero of Ireland

Faculty Insight

Kathryn Ann Chadbourne

Affiliate of the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University

Every March 17, St. Patrick’s Day inspires lively parades, green garb, and Irish brews. But who is the man at the centerpiece of this holiday? Kate Chadbourne, Harvard Extension School instructor and scholar of Irish folklore, shares stories about St. Patrick, and how she likes to celebrate the Irish holiday.

St. Patrick's Day. It's a big occasion, especially here in Boston. Could you enlighten us about St. Patrick?

We know about St. Patrick from a number of different sources. Believe it or not we actually have two documents that he himself left behind: one of them is a confession and the other one is a autobiography.

Kate Chadbourne

There is a historically documented human being—and that's not always the case with saints. Sometimes there are stories about saints, and there might be 300 people that could've been that saint. But we actually have a guy who lived in the fifth century, and his story is a really wonderful one.

He lived in Roman Britain, so he wasn't Irish at all. I think that's one of the most interesting things to start with. We're not really sure exactly where he was from. He might've been from northern Wales or the mid-coast of England.

When he was 16 years old, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave. His job was to herd pigs and sheep in County Antrim, which is in the northeast.

In the documents he left behind he tells us that he had a dream when he was a young slave and in the dream he heard a voice say, "Patrick, your ship is in the harbor." He makes his way down to the south coast of Ireland and catches a boat back to Roman Britain. While he's there, he decides he wants to be a priest and begins his training.

Then, he has another dream where he receives a letter. When he opens the letter he reads these words—"the voice of the Irish"—and they say "Come back dear boy and walk among us again." That's the beginning of his religious mission, and he sails back to Ireland.

When I think about Patrick and why I love St. Patrick's Day, I think: here we have a man who followed his dreams, and I think that's quite beautiful.

How would you describe St. Patrick?

The hagiographies—lives of the saints—tell us stories about Patrick, and blend what you would expect to hear about religious people with what sound a lot like comic book heroes. Patrick emerges from these sources as this crusty, hard-headed, but ultimately good-hearted man.

One of the folktales that I often tell my students in the Extension School is about Patrick being crabby. His curses were almost seen like a loaded gun.

Here's the story: One morning Patrick wakes up and says to a young lad who is traveling around the country with him, "I just need to do some curses today." He looks over and he sees a group of people and says, "I'm going to curse those people."

The lad says, "Don't do it, Patrick." He begins to pray, but Patrick just lets the curse fly right at the people. But before it can reach them—because the lad prayed—the power of God turned it aside, and it went onto the rushes that grew alongside the river.

That was lucky, but Patrick said, "I'm going to do another curse." He aims again at another group of people and the lad says, "Don't do it, Patrick." But Patrick lets it fly, and the kid prays to God, "Please avert the curse, please save these people." And the curses are diverted onto the tassels that grow on the top of an ear of corn, strangely enough.

Finally, Patrick says, "I have one more curse I just have to do." Again the lad says, "No, Patrick. Don't do it." But he lets it fly, and the lad prays again, "Oh please God, save these poor people." It flies aside, and the curse went into the water that someone was using to boil eggs for breakfast. That was a miracle that the young lad was there and was so quick witted.

Ever since that day, all the good was taken out of the items the curses struck. The tops of the rushes are stained red. And you can't really do anything with the tassels that grow out of the corn. And nobody has found a good use for the water that you boil your egg in.

What struck me as interesting about that last fable that you told is that typically the saints are the heroes of the story, but in this case he appears to be the antagonist. Is that what makes him unique from other saints?

Yes and no. One of my lectures is called A Cup of Tea with the Saints because there has been—and still is today—a familial sense of intimacy with the saints.

When you milked your cow, you asked St. Brigid to sit down beside you. There's something wonderful about the humanness of saints in Ireland—that they're not just these kind of pillars of wisdom and holiness. They're actually more like us.

In the confessional letters St. Patrick wrote, he says more or less, "I'm a poor Latin scholar. I'm not that smart. I've done the best I could. I made some mistakes." He was humble.

Are there any traditions for celebrating St. Patrick's Day that have any relation to the saint himself?

In Ireland there is a tradition called “drowning the shamrock,” meaning having a drink with a shamrock in it, and people wear sprigs of shamrock to celebrate.

Patrick himself is associated with the shamrock because in one of the stories about meeting old pagan kings, he wants to explain the Holy Trinity. He plucks a shamrock and holds it up and says, "Look at this shamrock. Three in one: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." No wonder everyone has a shamrock in their window on St. Patrick's Day.

One more thing, just to say. We have this idea in the United States that people in Ireland are drinking excessively on St. Patrick's Day, and that's really not the truth. The usual way of celebrating St. Patrick's Day is going to Mass and having a family dinner, and in some places a beautiful parade.

What's your favorite way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day?

Singing and telling stories. This whole month that's what I do. Outside of teaching at the Extension School, I'm a harper and a singer and a storyteller, and this whole month is one long St. Patrick's celebration for me, which I love.

My aim for the month is to connect people with their Irishness whether they have Irish roots or not. To me, what's wonderful about Irish life is a sense of welcome, a sense of sharing through wonderful, funny, lively songs and stories—just being together and laughing, a lot of laughing.

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