St. Patrick's Day Gives Fun Meaning Behind A True Saint

Published: Feb. 16, 1998

St. Patrick’s Day conjures up images of lucky four leaf clovers, the color green, and crowded Irish pubs filled with people wearing buttons that say, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.

But the true meaning behind the holiday is in the saint himself. St. Patrick was seen as the savior of Ireland 1,500 years ago and still is today, according to University of Colorado at Boulder English Professor Michael Bell.

When St. Patrick was a teen-ager he was kidnapped from Roman-occupied Britain and taken to Ireland by pirates to be a goat herder. After six years he escaped, but had visions leading him to preach the Gospel in the Emerald Isle.

When he returned to Ireland, his constant conflict with the pagan druids -- the enemies of Christianity -- became the stuff of the legend, Bell said.

“St. Paddy” is remembered as the one who banished snakes from Ireland while standing on the only three-leafed clover or shamrock patch in the country. The shamrock spread from that small area to all over Ireland to commemorate Patrick’s feat, and later became the prominent symbol of the country. The shamrock reminds Irishmen that St. Patrick drove all things venomous out of Ireland except humans.

“It is reported as early as 1525 A.D. that English merchants would take Irish soil home to England and throw it in their gardens to try and keep snakes out,” Bell said. “Such was the power of St. Patrick’s word.”

March 17 marks the tradition where an Irishman can get a free drink in any pub in the world. It is also the only day in Lent when people may eat and drink their fill; toasting this fact with alcohol is known as “drowning the shamrock,” a tradition which has been around since at least 1870, Bell said.

St. Patrick was known to drink a little whiskey himself, although the distillation process wasn’t invented until after his death.

According to legend, St. Paddy once walked into a pub and ordered a shot. While he was there he noticed the barmaids were giving nearly everyone in the place short measure. He asked the bar owner how business was doing and the bar owner replied saying not very good, Bell said.

St. Patrick then suggested perhaps a monster under the stairs was eating all the profits. St. Patrick took the owner to the cellar and showed him a hideous beast with fangs, horns, bristles and claws, according to the story.

The monster had grown fat on the dishonest profits the bar owner had made by short-measuring his customers. The desperate owner pleaded with St. Patrick to get rid of the monster but St. Patrick made the owner make it up to his customers for a year and a day before he could promise him any help.

“After 12 months, he returned to the pub and took the owner downstairs again,” Bell said. “The monster was paper-thin skin and bones. Patrick just waved it away, and it evaporated up the chimney.”

Ever since that day, bartenders have been on notice from St. Patrick not to give their customers short measure.

“St. Patrick walked all over the island and there are miracles associated with many of the individual locations he visited,” Bell said.

The legend of St. Patrick’s death illustrates his popularity. Bell tells the story of how his body was placed on an ox cart and the oxen were allowed to wander. When the oxen stopped at Downpatrick, currently in Northern Ireland, it became his place of burial.

Today, the medieval saint has retained his popularity and people around the world enjoy celebrating the holiday, Bell said.