I'm going to make a bold statement: pretty much everyone is familiar with Saint Patrick. Probably not in any real historical or religious detail, but you don't lend your name to the biggest drinking day in the United States -- and quite possibly the Western world -- without people at least remembering your name.
But, to paraphrase something an Irish professor once said to me when I spent a term at Trinity College, Dublin,* pretty much every thing you know about Saint Patrick is wrong. For one thing, he didn't introduce Christianity to Ireland -- the Catholic Church recognizes Palladius, a missionary and ascetic from Gaul, as the first bishop of the believing Irish, and even that implies that he was sent to Ireland to tend to existing Christian communities. Indeed, there's some ambiguity as to whether Palladius and Patrick where the same person (at least one scholar believes they were), and even if they weren't, it's possible that many of the (non-legendary) acts attributed to Patrick were in fact Palladius's. Regardless, Patrick's own testament makes his life sound interesting enough: he was the son of a deacon in fifth-century Roman Britain who was captured by pirates when he was sixteen, sold into slavery in Ireland, escaped back to Britain after six years, but then returned to Ireland as a missionary and representative of the Christian Church.
Irish 5-shilling stamp depicting St. Patrick, 1937
To complicate things even further, Saint Patrick is only one of three patron saints of Ireland. Saint Brigid of Kildare was active at the same time as Patrick in the latter half of the fifth century, and Saint Columba of Donegal preached to the Picts of Scotland in the 500s. Brigid's hagiography, incidentally, makes for some pretty interesting reading, particularly her miracles (from Cogitosus's Life of St. Brigid):
[The] venerable Brigid was asked by some lepers for beer, but had none. She noticed water that had been prepared for baths. She blessed it, in the goodness of her abiding faith, and transformed into the best beer, which she drew copiously for the thirsty. It was indeed He Who turned water into win in Cana of Galilee Who turned water into beer here....
That's right -- the Galileans have their wine, but the Irish have their beer (suddenly, the modern Saint Patrick's Day celebration doesn't quite seem so off-key).
But my personal favorite, possibly the most astounding miracle I've ever read of in any saint's life (though admittedly I have only a cursory knowledge of Irish and Russian hagiographies -- emphasis on cursory) is this stunner:
With a strength of faith most powerful and ineffable, she (Brigid) blessed a woman who, after a vow of virginity, had lapsed through weakness into youthful concupisence, as a result of which her womb began to swell with pregnancy. In consequence, what had been conceived in the womb disappeared, and she restored her to health and to penitence without childbirth or pain.
There's a reason why Choice Ireland (where abortion is illegal) proclaims Brigid of Kildare as Ireland's first abortionist.
But for those who are neither interested in the arcane details of Irish saints or drinking themselves into a stupor, there is an alternative holiday that celebrates Irish literature, Irish language, and Irish culture. My advice to to the cultural set is to avoid the pubs tomorrow and instead start making plans for Bloomsday on June 16 -- the date on which James Joyce's epic novel Ulysses is set in 1904 (I admit to having had a rather disappointing gorgonzola cheese sandwich and glass of burgundy at Davy Byrne's Pub -- a word to the wise: don't order wine at Irish pubs, whether in Ireland or not). In the U.S., Bloomsday typically means book readings (and probably some drinking); in Dublin, it means a brigade of men and women in Edwardian garb retracing the steps of Joyce's protagonist, Leopold Bloom.
Bloomsday revelers outside Davy Byrne's Pub, 2003
*That can be a surprisingly sore point whenever I mention it to Irish people I encounter the U.S., as it's considered to be a posh and rather snobby college by its detractors, but then again, it was the resident university of the Protestant Ascendancy for decades, and it maintained a largely Protestant character well into Irish independence; though the university lifted a ban on Catholic students in 1793, the Irish Catholic Church only lifted its reciprocal ban in 1972.