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St. Patrick’s Day more than a ‘green hat’

St. Patrick’s Day is often relegated to being the day when it is commonplace to drink violently green beverages or dress in emerald to avoid being pinched.

But the holiday has a deeper history than that, a history that has been largely lost or ignored by the world at large.

The Rev. John O’Neill, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Alcoa and a native of Ireland, said that St. Patrick was an Irishman most known for warring against the Druids. “He was from a very religious Anglo or Franco Roman family, either from Canterbury or Normandy,” he added. Patrick’s father was a Catholic deacon and his grandfather was a priest.

“He took on the Druids and he defeated them because they had terrorized the people of Ireland and one of the ways they put the people down was, they would threaten to kill anyone who would light a fire before they did on the spring solstice when they worshipped the pagan gods. And St. Patrick lit the Easter fire on the same night, before they did. And that’s when the battle between St. Patrick and the Druids began in earnest and they sent out people to try and kill him.

“The Druid hill, the Hill of Tara … it’s not very dramatic to look at unless you know the whole history, but that’s where the battle between St. Patrick and the Druids began on Holy Saturday night in the year 432,” O’Neill said.

All of this history seems to be a far cry from plastic green hats and dyed beer.

“Ireland has had an intense missionary tradition … and one of the great mysteries of the Irish missionaries is that they often leave no trace … they almost vanish,” O’Neill said. History is easily changed when no historical clues are left behind.

The secularization of and loss of religious knowledge of St. Patrick’s Day is “a problem. That is truly a problem,” O’Neill said. However, much of St. Patrick’s life can be recovered from his diary.

“It’s very good for you to go back and get that diary, ‘Confessions of St. Patrick.’ You’ll read it in an afternoon or less,” he added.

“His diary is historically attested to by secular scholars … and it is a graphic illustration of his life. Very few patron saints of that time, like David or Andrew or George, other patrons of the area around Wales or Scotland, their diaries are not intact. So his diary is an accredited diary, the same as St. Augustine’s diary,” O’Neill said.

Don’t be so quick to write off all St. Patrick’s Day traditions. Luckily, some common sights at celebrations today retain their link to historical fact. For instance, “St. Patrick used the shamrock to symbolize three persons in one God,” O’Neill said.

This year, the Catholic Church will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day differently because it falls during Holy Week.

“Easter will not come again this early for another 250 years,” O’Neill said. “Historically, St. Patrick’s Day very rarely falls during Holy Week. Those are the days between Palm Sunday, when Christ entered Jerusalem, and all the things like his betrayal on Wednesday, the Last Supper, the Passion on Good Friday and rising from the tomb on Easter Sunday morning. It’s very rare that it falls in between those days, but this year it does, so indeed, the [St. Patrick’s Day] feast is suppressed for a bigger feast.

“It [the Catholic Church] is moving St. Joseph’s feast day backwards and the annunciation forward so that it is after Easter. So two feast days have been moved and one has been suppressed.”

“March 17 is usually, for Irish people, a Holy Day of Obligation, where we are obliged to go to mass,” he added. “There are two places in Ireland where observers go to pray: Croagh Patrick, a mountain in Western Ireland which people climb barefoot, and Lough Geog, a place of penance, “where since the year 400 the Irish people go and pray and fast for three days and three nights.”


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