St. Patrick and his Day

Connecting the saint to his Irish context, especially the 19th century "Great Famine," a very human and political disaster

by Ken Sehested

Commemorative Issue
St. Patrick

St. Patrick Day festivities are many and varied. Even in my distance from all things Irish while growing up in a small tex-mex town in West Texas, and a slightly larger town down the Cajun swamps of South Louisiana, wearing green was a thing on 17 March.

            Elsewhere, though, St. Patrick’s Day is a happening. In Chicago, since 1962, the Plumber’s Union has dumped green dye in the city’s Chicago River to commemorate the day. —watch this time-lapse video (1:36) of the river’s dyeing

            New York City hosts the granddaddy of St. Patrick’s parades which traces its history back to 1762. This year some 400 marching groups will participate and likely draw 2 million spectators.

            See Susan B. Barnes’ “17 St. Patrick's Day celebrations for March 17 and beyond” for a summary of St. Patrick’s Day events around the US.

Hymn of praise. Among my all-time favorite recordings is “The Deer’s Cry,” aka “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” —Performed by Rita Connolly with the Curtlestown Choir directed by Evelyn Deasy, accompanied by Shaun Davey on pedal harmonium, Gerry O'Beirne, Mathew Manning, Moya O'Grady and David O'Doherty at Powerscourt House, 2009. Shaun Davey adapted the words of St Patricks Breastplate as translated by Kuno Meyer in 1990.

St. Patrick (5th century) wasn’t Irish, didn’t expel snakes from Ireland, has no “miracle” attributed to him (which now is required for sainthood), and didn’t write the poem “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” (which was likely penned 3-4 centuries after he died in the late 5th century). Ironically, though, his fame was sufficiently established in his lifetime that his followers waged a war for custody of his body. Relatively little is known for certain about his life, but this much is documented: He was likely the first early church leader to speak out against the abuse of women.

See “Who Was St. Patrick?” on for a biographical summary.

Whether or not you indulge in green beer for the occasion, don’t neglect the historical context. The “Great [Potato] Famine” in Ireland (1845-1852) claimed the lives of a million people and prompted the migration of another million, reducing the country’s population by nearly 25%.

            And it wasn’t just a natural disaster—it was also a very human one; indeed, one of modern history’s most cruel political escapades, During the famine, British landowners in Ireland exported £17 million work of foodstuffs of all sort. The Irish starved, or fled to other countries, because of British-sponsored colonial forces and choices. The potato blight (which happened across Europe as well in the 1840s) was an historic disaster; but what made the period catastrophic were very human financial policies.

Right: St. Patrick icon is by Hamish Burgess. Visit his Maui Celtic site for more St. Patrick history and legends.

¶ See Bill Bigelow’s “The Real Irish-American Story Not Taught in Schools”  for more background on how this “disaster” is still mis-remembered. Current Irish-British relations can not be understood apart from this period of history. And the memory of St. Patrick cannot be properly honored apart from this context.

Hymn of lament. “Oh it’s well I do remember, that bleak / December day, / The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive / Us all away / They set my roof on fire, with their cursed / English spleen / And that’s another reason why I left old / Skibbereen.” —listen to Sinéad O’Connor’s haunting rendition of this Irish folk song

Listen to the complete version (with lyrics—click the “show more” button) of “Skibbereen” by Michael C. O'Laughlin.

Tomie dePaola’s children book, Patrick, is my favorite on that genre.

¶ “St Patrick's Day 2017 pictures: Reenacting patron saint's landing in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland: Celebrated on 17 March, St Patrick's Day recognises the arrival of Christianity and Irish culture. A reenactment of the first landing of St Patrick on Irish shores took place at Inch Abbey in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland on 12 March, ahead of St Patrick's Day.” Alex Wheeler, International Business Times


“I arise today.

“Through the strength of Heaven / Light of sun / Radiance of moon / Splendour of fire / Speed of lightning / Swiftness of wind / Depth of the sea / Stability of earth / Firmness of rock

“I arise today / Through God’s strength to pilot me / God’s eye to look before me / God’s wisdom to guide me / God’s way to lie before me / God’s shield to protect me

“From all who shall wish me ill / Afar and anear / Alone and in a multitude / Against every cruel / Merciless power / That may oppose my body and soul / Christ with me, / Christ before me, / Christ behind me, Christ in me

“Christ beneath me, Christ above me / Christ on my right, Christ on my left / Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down / Christ when I arise, Christ to shield me

“Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me / Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me / I arise today.” —"The Deers Cry," aka "St. Patrick’s Breastplate," anonymous poem of the 8th century, translated from old Irish by Kuno Meyer

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