St. Patrick's Day Myths
Today's quiz tests whether you've been skeptical of what you think you know about St. Patrick's Day.
Today we have for you another of Skeptoid's dreaded and infamous pop quizzes. It's not strictly just for fun, and it's not just because it's St. Patrick's Day and we needed a theme. It's really to test how consistently you apply skepticism in your life. Today we're going to see if you are one who has credulously accepted everything they've ever heard about St. Patrick's Day, or if you put everything through the filter of skepticism. Of course you may be one who knows almost nothing about St. Patrick's Day other than you're supposed to wear green and will likely go out for beer after work; and if that's you, then today you can learn much of the truth behind the holiday, and stump your friends, and get them to buy that beer for you.
Before we get to today's "true or false" quiz questions, I want to give a very abbreviated history of St. Patrick's day. Some of the questions have to do with historical associations of various symbols with the holiday, so this quick review will let us better define what we mean by a historical association. Today, St. Patrick's Day is a big drinking party. We drink green beer, we wear green, and the bars put up leprechaun and four-leafed clover decorations. The day celebrates Irish culture. But this was not always the case. These traditions only arose when large numbers of Irish people began immigrating into the United States, mostly in the 1700s and 1800s. They'd left their culture behind them, so they revived it once a year with parades and celebrations. Back in their native Ireland, though, St. Patrick's Feast Day had been very different. It was very much a religious holiday, and was spent at church or at home in quiet prayer, and there was — of course — the traditional family feast. Then in the 1900s, the Irish American "green beer party" version began to influence the Irish version, and the first St. Patrick's Day Parade was held in Waterford in 1903.
So for the purposes of today's questions, a "historical association" with St. Patrick's Day refers to the original Irish religious holiday prior to the 20th century, and not to today's modern green beer fest. So with that in mind, let's dive right in with our first myth:
1. St. Patrick was Irish.
This is perhaps the most obvious thing one might know about St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, and the single person in history most closely associated with Ireland. But is it true or false?
False! Patrick was born somewhere on Great Britain, possibly in Scotland; but not on the island of Ireland. And when he was born, Great Britain was part of the Roman Empire. So, really, he was Roman; Romano-British being the modern term assigned to that particular nationality. Much of what's known of him is taken from his autobiography, Confessio, St. Patrick's Confession. When he was about sixteen years old, he was among "thousands" of others captured and taken to Ireland as a slave. After six years, he escaped, and made it aboard a ship back to Great Britain and was reunited with his family. Eventually he trained as a missionary and felt called back to Ireland, where he later became the first Primate of Ireland, the senior churchman on the island. It was this assignment that became the basis for his being honored with his own day, and for being the patron saint of Ireland.
Unlike other known church figures of the day, Patrick's birth and death dates are not known. He was probably born sometime in the 5th century, and probably died early in the 6th century. Dates are established for many of those whom he converted, during a period from 496 to 508; so we know he was alive and active as a churchman during those years.
2. St. Patrick was associated with the three-leafed shamrock.
Hardly any mention of St. Patrick's Day avoids bringing shamrocks into the conversation. Shamrocks are everywhere when we celebrate, so clearly they must have a strong connection, right?
True! Traditionally — but certainly not provably — St. Patrick used the shamrock's three leaves to teach the Irish pagans about the Holy Trinity. The three leaves represented the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — the three parts of the whole.
However, Patrick does not mention the shamrock or its leaves in any of his surviving writings. It's entirely possible that the analogy was introduced later by one of his successors, but we've no evidence of that either.
The shamrock is one of the two national symbols of Ireland — the other being the harp, signifying resistance to the crown. There are alternate interpretations for why this is, among them a Celtic tradition that the shamrock's three leaves represent trust in your soul, belief in your heart, and faith in your mind — some versions shortening this to faith, hope, and love. But the Holy Trinity interpretation is the one that St. Patrick would more likely have used in his teachings.
3. St. Patrick was associated with the four-leafed clover.
Well, if St. Patrick had a connection with the three-leafed shamrock, then it would have been even luckier if he had one with the four-leafed clover as well. Is it true or false?
False! While the three leaves of the shamrock represented faith, hope, and love, that rare 1-in-5,000 fourth leaf represented luck. This is according to Irish tradition, not to St. Patrick, and not to anything that St. Patrick's Day celebrates.
There are stories that Celts or other pagans revered the four-leafed clover as a good luck charm, and by the 1600s this theme had made it into print enough times that it became a permanent Irish fixture. But it was never connected to either St. Patrick or to his feast day.
4. Leprechauns have a historical association with St. Patrick's Day.
It's clear that leprechauns have a modern association — heck, they're all over every bar serving green beer — but is it true that that association goes way back to the days of the original prayerful feasting?
False! Leprechauns are creatures from Irish folklore, but they did not appear in literature until many centuries after St. Patrick's death. They are iconic of Ireland itself, and have no connection whatsoever to St. Patrick's Day or to the man himself. Like, exactly zero connection.
There does not seem to be a single agreed-upon period in which leprechauns first appeared in folklore. Some sources give it as the 8th century, when an early Celtic work called The Adventure of Fergus featured them as small water sprites. Separately, a 12th century work called the Book of Invasions featured monsters that some consider to be the inspiration for leprechauns. Others point to an early Celtic god, Lugh, as the inspiration. The modern word and spelling "leprechaun" arose in the 19th century, and prior to that, all kinds of varying spellings and words were used referring to basically the same character.
Have your green beer and toast the leprechaun, but don't mistake him for having anything to do with the traditional St. Patrick's Day.
5. St. Patrick introduced Catholicism to Ireland.
He is the patron saint of Ireland, and one doesn't receive such an honor unless one did something pretty big and good. Like, for example, introducing Christianity to an entire island nation. Did he?
False! Christianity already existed in Ireland, and had for some time. While a majority of Irish were pagan, there were Christian monasteries for monks before Patrick ever came there. There was also a prominent bishop already in Ireland, Palladius, who died around 460. Lesser Christian clerics were also known from the period before Patrick: Auxilius, Iserninus, and Secondinas were three such men.
Patrick can be reasonably credited as being the first head of a truly organized Irish branch of the church, but the church itself, and many practitioners, certainly preceded his arrival.
6. Green has a historical association with St. Patrick's Day.
There is literally nothing that's not green on St. Patrick's Day. If it's not green already, then it gets dyed green — like the beer, and like the Chicago River — which has inspired other cities to do the same. So, clearly, green must have some deep historical association with the day, right?
False! If you were going to guess that blue is actually the color historically associated with St. Patrick, that would be wrong too. The Order of St. Patrick was formed in 1783 — more than 1200 years after his death. That's when the color St. Patrick's Blue was established; however, the name does not refer to any actual shade of blue. In heraldry, Ireland's symbol is a golden harp on a shield of azure blue, but this was first used in the 13th century; again, long after St. Patrick. In later centuries the harp has also been found on a green background. Claims of any particular color being associated with the saint himself are apocryphal and disputed.
And as for green — the color that obviously has everything to do with St. Patrick's Day — the question is just as murky. The issue of official colors in Ireland is a complex one. Obviously green is its de facto — if unofficial — national color. Ireland's flag is green, white, and orange; with green symbolizing the Irish Catholics, white symbolizing peace, and orange symbolizing the Protestants. It comes from Dutch monarch William of Orange, aka William III, who was King of England, Ireland, and Scotland around the turn of the 18th century.
Green likely comes from Ireland's long-standing nickname of the Emerald Isle. It has no association with either St. Patrick or his official feast day at all, but it became the thing you're supposed to wear on St. Patrick's Day for one simple reason. As it's the color of Ireland, it's what Irish Americans wore when celebrating the day. Wear it to show your solidarity with Ireland, not with St. Patrick.
7. But you shouldn't wear orange.
While you are expected to wear green, there are those who say you shouldn't wear orange. Is this true or false?
True! Remember how the orange on the Irish flag commemorates William of Orange, the King of England? Wearing orange would, to some, be interpreted as showing your allegiance to the Crown, and that's not something that many Irish nationalists are super cool with. So if you're going to enjoy your green beer, consider not doing so in an orange shirt.
8. St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland.
Most mentions you'll find of this online dismiss it out of hand, saying it's false that he ever did any such thing. In fact, you're probably more likely to hear that it's false than you are to hear the story of him doing it. However, most such legends have a grain of truth to them. Did St. Patrick do anything that would be construed today as having driven away Ireland's snakes?
False! One of the Sunday School stories about St. Patrick is that after he arrived in Ireland, he was attacked by serpents. Serpents are symbols of the devil, and so Patrick cleansed the island by compelling all its snakes off a cliff and into the sea, where they perished.
The simple fact is that Ireland never had any snakes. As the last ice age broke up and temperatures became warm enough for reptiles on the British Isles, the ice connecting Ireland to Great Britain was already gone by the time snakes were able to cross from the European mainland to Great Britain. One thing we can say for sure though: No snakes made it into Ireland on St. Patrick's watch.
And those are all the St. Patrick's Day myths we have time for today. Hopefully you got them all right; and if you did, I raise a green beer in your honor. And on this special day, I say to all who celebrate:
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort!
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