On March 17th of every year, the entire world momentarily becomes – or tries to become – Irish. March 17th, more commonly known as St Patrick’s Day, traces its roots back to ancient times. As the traditionally recognised death date of St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, it was officially adopted into the Christian calendar at the beginning of the 17th century.
The Irish diaspora, as well as millions of other people all over the world, emphatically celebrate St Patricks Day (and night!). Named after Ireland’s patron saint, St Patrick, it is a day that celebrates Irish culture and heritage, and today encourages fun, parades, even drinking.
Alcohol became associated with the festival after it was first adopted by the Christian calendar as the Lent restrictions (notably, the restriction on alcohol consumption) were briefly lifted each year on March 17th.
And of course, the colour green is heavily associated with Ireland and St Patrick’s Day. In the 1640s, the Irish Catholic Confederation adopted the green harp flag (an ancient Irish symbol).
The colour green has since become associated with Ireland in general. Many people wear green clothing, ribbons and shamrocks – which has been a tradition on St Patrick’s Day since at least 1680!
St Patrick was actually born in Wales at the end of the 4th century, but at 16, he was captured by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland where he worked in captivity as a shepherd. He became fluent in Irish and converted to Christianity.
After six years of servitude, he escaped and returned to Britain and then mainland Europe where he became a priest and later a bishop.
Despite his narrow escape, he returned to Ireland in order to spread Christianity to the people of Ireland. He wandered the countryside – particularly in the northern half of Ireland – travelling from community to community in order to preach the teachings of Christianity.
According to legend, St Patrick used the shamrock – with three leaves – as a way of teaching the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
Another legend credits him with ‘driving the snakes’ from Ireland, although Ireland never had any snakes. ‘Driving the snakes’ away is instead an allegory for the driving away from the druids (pagan priests).
Patrick is said to have ‘converted thousands’ of people, from farm labourers to wealthy women to sons of kings, even ordaining priests who founded new Christian communities.
It is during this time of his life that St Patrick was said to have climbed the impressive mountain now known as Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo where he fasted for 40 days on the summit. Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain, is still one of the best and most beloved hikes in Ireland to visitors and locals alike.
On the last Sunday in July, locally known as Reek Sunday, people come from all over Ireland come to climb Croagh Patrick, culminating with mass, which is said in the little stone church on the summit. A lesser-known pilgrimage takes place here on the first Sunday of August each year.
Another way to pay homage to Ireland’s patron saint is by hiking Mám Éan, also known as the Pass of the Birds, a quiet route through Co Mayo’s wild and mountainous landscape. Along the way, follow the stations of the cross until you reach the tiny chapel and a statue of St Patrick with a lamb, dedicated to St Patrick. The nearby cave, called St Patrick’s Bed, is where the saint is said to have slept.
Also in Co Mayo is Downpatrick Head, an impressive sea stack hugging the rugged Mayo coast. Long maintained as a pilgrimage site, this detached sea stack is also associated with the saint.
As the patron saint of Ireland, St Patrick has an important following both in and outside of Ireland. In order to better understand who St Patrick was, try following in his footsteps. And what better way than to do so by foot?
By hiking the mountains of Connemara and Mayo, you’ll cover two hikes strongly associated with St Patrick – Mám Éan and Croagh Patrick – and get to know Ireland’s most important saint.