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The Seven Biggest Myths of St. Patrick's Day

Image via Wiki Commons.

#1 St. Patrick Was Irish

Not exactly. Although no one knows for certain where St. Patrick was born, based on his own account it was most likely in southwestern Britain. As a result, it’s fairly common to find various pundits gleefully commenting on the"irony" that Ireland’s patron saint was actually"English." The problem, of course, is that no one in the 5th century was what we would call"English." Rather, the people living in present-day England were Romanized Celts, or Britons. So Patrick is thus more accurately called a Celtic Briton, son of a low-level Roman official.

#2 St. Patrick Was the First Christian Missionary to Ireland

Nope. Contrary to popular belief, St. Patrick was not the first Christian missionary in Ireland, though he was certainly the most successful. Some evidence exists of missionaries traveling through Ireland by the late fourth century A.D., but they seemed to have enjoyed little success. The best-known missionary before Patrick was Palladius, sent by Pope Celestine in 431 A.D. to minister to"the Irish who believe in Christ." Many scholars believe that at least some of the deeds and accomplishments later attributed to Patrick were more likely those of Palladius (some even contend that Patrick and Palladius were one in the same). There were others as well, Auxilius and Iserninus worked in the south of Ireland while Secondinas preached in the north and east.

#3 St. Patrick Used the Shamrock to Teach about Christianity

One of the most enduring tales of St. Patrick is that he used the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity (by comparing the three leaves with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to the pagan Celts of Ireland. The legend is unverifiable, since Patrick doesn’t mention it in his writings. Some have suggested it derives from an earlier Celtic tradition of using the shamrock as a metaphor representing a"trust in your soul,""belief in your heart" and"faith in your mind." Some missionary, if not Patrick himself, very likely Christianized this concept. Few in Ireland seem troubled by these details and the shamrock remains the Irish national symbol.

#4 St Patrick Drove the Snakes out of Ireland

There’s only one problem with this story: Ireland never had any snakes to drive away. Separated from England (where snakes of all sorts abound) and the Continent thousands of years ago, Ireland emerged from the Ice Age snake-free. If St. Patrick were alive today, of course, we could expect that his spokesperson would come forward to offer a slightly modified legend which stretched but did not break the limits of belief:"Since Patrick’s arrival in Ireland no snakes have been sighted."

#5 The Annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade is an Irish Tradition

Actually, the parade was invented in Manhattan. Of course, the practice of honoring St. Patrick on March 17, traditionally understood as the day of his death (c. 493) at Downpatrick in County Down, is a tradition that comes from old Ireland. For centuries the people of Ireland marked the day as a solemn religious event, perhaps wearing green, sporting a shamrock, and attending mass, but little more. Certainly there was no massive parade like the ones found in American cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago.

No one knows for sure when the first commemoration of St. Patrick’s Day in America took place. One of the earliest references is to the establishment of the Charitable Irish Society, founded on St. Patrick’s Day in Boston in 1737. Another early celebration took place in New York City in 1762, when an Irishman named John Marshall held a party in his house. Although little is known of Marshall's party, it is understood that his guests marched as a body to his house to mark St. Patrick's Day, thus forming an unofficial"parade." The first recorded true parade took place in 1766 in New York when local military units, including some Irish soldiers in the British army, marched at dawn from house to house of the leading Irish citizens of the city. With few exceptions, the parade in New York has been held every year since 1766. Thus was a tradition born – an American tradition only recently adopted in Ireland itself.

#6 The Irish Invented the Urban Political Machine

The Irish in America certainly came to dominate urban political machines, but they didn’t invent them. Native born Americans began to establish political machines in the early nineteenth century, long before the great waves of Irish immigrants arrived. Indeed New York’s Tammany Hall, perhaps the most famous machine of all, was first established as a fraternal society in 1788 and was quite hostile to the foreign born. It was under the skillful leadership of Aaron Burr and later Martin Van Buren in the early 19th century that Tammany became a political organization that sought the favor of the poor, immigrant Irish. Irish domination of that machine didn’t really materialize until the fall of William Tweed (himself Scottish Presbyterian) in the early 1870s and the emergence of"Honest" John Kelly as his successor. Still it wasn’t until 1880 that the first Irish Catholic mayor – William R. Grace – was elected.

#7 Most Irish Americans Are Catholic

In several polls and surveys conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, researchers discovered what at first seemed an astonishing fact: a majority of Americans who identify themselves as Irish also identify themselves as Protestant. For a nation (and an ethnic group for that matter) that had grown so accustomed to conflating Irishness with Catholicism, this announcement was greeted with disbelief. Among some Irish Catholics, the reaction was anger.

The explanation for the find is actually quite simple. Ultimately, it is a question of timing, more than numbers. Huge numbers of Irish immigrants came to America in the colonial period (indeed, 30 percent of all immigrants from Europe arriving between 1700 and 1820 came from Ireland) and the great majority of them were Presbyterians from Ulster. Of the many thousands of Catholics who came in the 17th and 18th centuries, most appear to have converted to some form of Protestantism. The Protestant descendents of these early Irish arrivals have been multiplying ever since. In contrast, the great migration of Irish Catholics began only in the 1830s (during which time, of course, many Protestant Irish continued to come). A poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center makes this point clear: in the 1970s, only 41% of Irish Catholics were fourth generation or more as compared to 83% of Irish Protestants.


Leprechauns Are Cute Little Elves

Stop right there, turn around slowly, and DROP that picture in your mind of the little guy on the Lucky Charms cereal box. That jolly little imp, and his counterparts on greeting cards, pub signs, and your Aunt Margaret’s stationery, bears almost no resemblance to the leprechauns of Irish mythology. To borrow a phrase from a long-dead philosopher writing about something entirely different, they were"nasty, brutish, and short." Leprechauns were grumpy, alcoholic, insufferable elves in the employ of Irish fairies. They made shoes for fairies (hence their depiction as cobblers) and guarded their treasure which to the leprechauns’ eternal frustration was revealed occasionally to mortals by a rainbow. Somewhere in the course of the Irish American experience, the leprechaun took on the characteristics of the loveable, but ultimately contemptible, stage Irishman.

"Luck of the Irish" Refers to the Abundance of Good Fortune Long Enjoyed by the Irish

Really? What sort of luck is it that brings about 1,000 years of invasion, colonization, exploitation, starvation and mass emigration? In truth, this term has a happier, if not altogether positive, American origin. During the gold and silver rush years in the second half of the 19th century, a number of the most famous and successful miners were of Irish and Irish American birth. For example, James Fair, James Flood, William O'Brien and John Mackay were collectively known as the"Silver Kings" after they hit the famed Comstock Lode. Over time this association of the Irish with mining fortunes led to the expression"luck of the Irish." Of course, it carried with it a certain tone of derision, as if to say, only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains, could these fools succeed.

Mc and Mac Distinguish One as Either Irish or Scottish

Both terms designate a person’s ancestry. Mac is the Gaelic term for son and Mc is merely a shorthand version. Lord Blarney, for example, Cormac Mac Carthaig (McCarthy), was son of Carthaig. Neither"Mc" nor"Mac" signify an Irish or Scottish name. Both Mac and its contraction Mc are found in the traditional Gaelic societies of Scotland and Ireland.

And while we’re at it, what’s with all those O’s?"O" is the Gaelic word for grandson. The apostrophe, which suggests a contraction, is a legacy of British colonialism. Misguided English bureaucrats assumed the O stood for the word"of" (as in" crack o’ dawn") and added the apostrophe when compiling official records and census data. Over the centuries, many families dropped the O’, which accounts for the existence of both O’Sullivan and Sullivan, O’Mahoney and Mahoney, etc. In recent decades many people in Ireland, and a few in the States, have dropped the apostrophe in favor of the more traditional spelling.