St Patrick: the sinner who turned the world green

Crowds at New York's St Patrick's Day parade (CNS)

The world – not to mention the nations of England, Scotland and Wales – tends to envy the success that Ireland has had with the global reach of its national patron saint, Patrick.

St David’s Day has its followers, St Andrew’s Day is not entirely ignored (although Robbie Burns’s night is a competitor) and efforts to promote
St George’s Day have usually ended up as a somewhat limp endeavour. But St Patrick! Why, the whole globe marks St Pat. Rivers in America run green and Jewish bagels are tinted emerald. Various revels take place from London to Buenos Aires and Sydney to celebrate Paddy’s Day. And President Obama is obliged to be photographed with his delivery of shamrock, symbol of the Holy Trinity with which, by tradition, Patrick converted the Irish pagans after AD 432.

How did St Patrick’s Day become such a successful “brand”? Until 1903 – when British legislation made March 17 a bank holiday – it was mostly marked as a liturgical feast in Ireland, though there had always been an element of folk jollity involved, and a welcome break from the strictures of Lent.

The Irish diaspora, the wearing of the green, the music of the fiddle, the mixture of holy day, holiday and a reasonably inclusive patriotism (Irish Protestants always claimed St Pat equally) helped to spread the brand. And liquor played a part too, in the Lenten relaxation – often too much of a part.

But in the midst of all these international festivities, let’s not forget Patrick himself: the slave and shepherd who so successfully evangelised Ireland, and wrote an autobiography known as St Patrick’s Confession, which begins: “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.”

Humility, gratitude, fortitude, trust in the Lord – and sometimes, moments of depression, too – mark his self-told story. He says nothing of his powers of persuasion, but they must have been remarkable to convert kings, nobles, druids and the populace so effectively.