He wasn’t even Irish
St. Patrick was born of Roman parents near Kilpatrick in Scotland in 387 A.D. There was nothing outstanding about him until he was captured, as a teenager, by a raiding party and taken to Ireland. St. Patrick was sold as a slave to the Druids and pagans.
Although not religiously inclined or educated, during his time in captivity, Patrick turned to God through prayer.
An amazing account of his own writings have survived; in one, he says he prayed about 100 prayers each day, and as many each night. While in Ireland and held by his cruel master, he became familiar with the language and customs of that land.
One night, Patrick had a dream in which he was told that “his ship was ready.” So he escaped the next day and walked 200 miles to the coast, where he convinced the captain of a ship about to sail to take him along. He was reunited with his family six years after his capture.
He then began his religious studies, being ordained as a priest by St. Germanus, and later he became a bishop. But he kept thinking about the people of Ireland, and one night he had another dream in which the children of Focluth were calling him to come back and save them. So once more he was on a boat headed for Ireland.
On a summer day around 433 A.D., Patrick and his companions landed at the mouth of the Vantry River. First, he wanted to go to his former master, and pay the ransom for himself. As he traveled, however, he converted many. His former master Milchu heard of this, and so before Patrick’s arrival, Milchu brought all his belongings into his home and set everything on fire, and himself too. Ancient writings claim that his pride could not endure being confronted by his former slave. Patrick traveled all over the Island, and endured many threats and hardships. Numerous miraculous signs and healings were bestowed through him, and during the 40 years of his apostleship, he converted almost the whole nation to Christianity. Today St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and one highly revered by the Catholic Church.
Patrick brought Christianity to the Irish, and the hardships of later centuries brought the Irish to America. With them, they brought their faith, their traditions, folklore and tenacity.
Legends of wee folk still alive
You might encounter them on sunny spring days, lurking about the hedgerows and dancing on the green; perhaps snacking on sugary breakfast cereals. Then, all you have to do is capture one — they’re small — and hold him until you can connive, cajole, or convince the convivial little elf to turn over his pot of gold, which everyone knows leprechauns have hidden.
If a scenario like this is included in your investment plan, you are going to have to rethink that whole financial strategy.
True leprechauns, it turns out, are nothing like our updated, convoluted and sweetened impressions of them. In fact, they are downright cranky, cantankerous little codgers. And to date, it is recorded that no one — no matter how clever — has ever tricked or cheated a leprechaun out of his gold. They are cons and tricksters, sly, wily and full of mischief themselves.
They are cobblers by trade, generally inhabiting solitary places and hedgerows, one-shoe-makers. They never make a pair. They are the suppliers of footwear for the other fairy folk, at least, those who have feet. And there are only males.
Their attire is unique. They are usually seen wearing a tri-cornered hat, which they can jab into the ground and spin like a top. Clothed in green jerkins and waistcoats, they may also be seen with leather aprons, small hammers and other tools of their trade. Their own shoes, of course, are well made; high-heeled and festooned with a comparatively huge buckle.
The leprechaun’s size is diminutive, between six and 24 inches high. Despite his youthful size, his face is always wizened and old, and usually sports a red nose, likely due to his fondness for drink. He also likes to smoke his pipe.
There are several similar names for the infamous Irish creature: leprechaun, cluricaun, lurican, lurikeen, or lurigadaun. The different names are simply from different regions of Ireland. Yet one source claims that the leprechaun will become a cluricaun at night, when he either raids the wine cellars of humans or gets drunk on his own heather ale, and then takes wild drunken rides across the moors on the backs of sheep or sheep dogs.
The whole area of Britan is rife with tales of fairies, pixies, elves and otherwise not human creatures. Most of these beings are credited with special powers, the ability to enchant and deceive, often with some type of deformity and quirky habits or personality traits.
Brownies are Scottish house-elves. Around two feet tall, if they are ever seen they are usually naked and covered with brown hair. Each house has its own brownie, who can be very helpful with the household or farm chores, particularly when the homeowners are brewing beer. Lowland brownies have no noses, while highland brownies have no fingers or toes. He makes the household run smoothly if he is happy, and ruins the home if he’s not.
The way to rid a house of a brownie is to give him new clothes. This insult will cause him to leave the house forever.
A similar relative of the brownie in Wales is the Bwca. He will churn butter in exchange for cream. If angered he will throw things, tear clothes and pinch sleepers. He dresses in coarse farmers clothes, has dark skin and long nose and detests teetotalers.
William Shakespeare made the mischievous Puck the most famous of the shape-shifting hobgoblins. Hobgoblins rarely go outdoors, and prefer to spend their time beside a warm fire, or on the “hob,” the small shelf in the fireplace that was used to keep food warm. If offended, they retaliate by stealing keys, and can only be placated by placing bits of cake on the hob.
There are some questionably reliable methods to protect the household from the works of fairies or other spirited creatures.
Iron is a hated substance; a knife left in the doorway would discourage non-human intruders. Rowan plants will discourage fairies, as well the use of red thread. Or one could try stones with holes, flax on the floor, a sock under the bed, or a twig of broom. A pigs head left in the center of the room is an effective discouragement also.
In Ireland, as well as any other land around the world where that culture has been dispersed, the tales of these other-natural creatures still thrive. Everyone knows that the last apple of the harvest should be left for the wee folk.
St. Patrick would likely not be enthralled to find his history so entwined with these folk tales woven from the dark remnants of ancient gods, spiritism and the mysterious Druids. Nonetheless, the relationship stands firm. The dichotomy is perhaps a representation of how the Irish psyche could fully embrace the new faith without ever fully releasing the past.
In most cultures, the folklore and mythology of the ages has been relegated to dusty pages of history. In the green land of Ireland, however, it seems to be eternally alive, and most every tale ends leaving the distinct possibility that a pixie, fairy or leprechaun may reappear near any hedgerow or hearth at any moment. (But you will never get his gold.)
One of the other Irish spirits of a more ghastly nature is the Banshee. Portrayed as an old woman with sunken nose and eyes, she wails outside the door when someone is about to die. Only the one about to meet his demise will be able to see her.
Myths are often used to explain the unexplainable, whether it be small items missing from the household, or something as huge as the hexagonal stone columns in County Antrim, said to have been a stone pathway that the giants used to walk to Scotland.
Wars and battles make up a great deal of both history and legend of Ireland. Norse, Viking, Firbolg or Dagda, the warriors are both human and supernatural; many tales of battle seem to have some physical evidence of fact. To be certain, the Irish esteemed courage and bravery.
A modern testament to courage are the hundreds of Claddagh rings, a traditional Irish jewelry, found in the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11, evidence of the bravery of the many Irish-American police and firemen who perished there.
The tale of the Claddagh ring may be the most perfect example of romance and faith. This traditional Irish ring, consists of a band with two hands coming together at the front, holding a heart. Atop the heart is a crown. According to legend, an Irish youth named Richard Joyce was kidnapped by a band of Mediterranean pirates. He was sold to a Moorish goldsmith who taught him, over the years, the craft of goldsmithing.
In 1689 King William III demanded the return of all captive slaves, and Joyce returned to his home of Galway, even though the goldsmith offered him much wealth and his daughter to stay. Once back in Ireland, Joyce found his childhood sweetheart, still faithful to him after all those years. When they married, he presented her with this ring of his creation, the Claddagh, a symbol of enduring love, named after the little fishing village. The two hands represent friendship, the crown loyalty, and the heart eternal love. According to the tale, the couple were never separated again.
Claddagh became the traditional Irish Wedding ring in the 17th century, and many were pawned for passage to America during the potato famine. When worn with the crown and heart facing outward, it means that the wearer’s heart is yet to be won. When facing inward, the owner’s heart is taken. Claddagh rings appear on many famous fingers, including, John Kennedy, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Maureen O’Hara, Jennifer Aniston and Grace Kelley.
Still wearing the green
They turn up in March, in green fields, wooded meadows and store windows. It’s the shamrock, that verdant symbol of all things Irish, the proverbial Irish clover. Or is it a clover? Does it have three leaves? What about the lucky four-leaf clover? Or is that a shamrock? Is the shamrock a clover?
If you are among the botanically challenged, these things may have puzzled you over the years.
The plant most often referred to as a “shamrock,” is indeed a clover. It is the White Clover, Trifolium repens forma minus.
The “trifolium” is a clue; tri equals three. So the shamrock is actually a white clover with three leaves. There are several variations of the trifolium plant, and two or three of these can also be considered shamrocks. These are of the family Leguminosae, a pea.
The Oxalis plant is often sold in stores around St. Patrick’s Day, and although it is a pretty plant, it is not really a shamrock.
Until recent decades, clovers were included in lawn seed mixes; of late they have been considered more of a scourge. With changing weather patterns and recent droughts, the humble clover may be making a comeback, as it requires less water and less care.
How did the shamrock come to be associated with St. Patrick? First, know that shamrocks grew wildly rampant in Ireland. Patrick was challenged with the daunting task of founding Christianity in the wild and pagan land. The saint had many harrowing experiences as he went up against the chieftains and Druids to try to present the gospel. Patrick found an opportunity on a Druid feast day, which also happened to be Easter Sunday, when all of the residents of that kingdom would be gathered together at Tara.
On this occasion Saint Patrick picked a shamrock, and used its three leaves to demonstrate to the people the concept of the Holy Trinity: God, Father and Son.
The shamrock had long been considered a holy plant by the Druids, the power and mystery of three having been with them since the early days of their people.
It was a successful demonstration, and Patrick was then able to evangelize throughout the land.
Later, another Christian concept was demonstrated by the use of the shamrock. The three leaves were used to symbolize the three great Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.
So, where did that fourth leaf come from, and what does that mean? Luck, of course! Hence the infamous luck of the Irish. Indeed, one would be quite lucky to find a four-leaf clover: it is estimated that only one in 10,000 clovers will have the aberration of the fourth leaf.
The fourth leaf was also a mystical Druid concept of good fortune. More than four leaves only means more luck. On a true four-leaf clover, the fourth leaf will be smaller than the other three.
The first written mention of the four-leaf clover bringing luck was in 1620, when Sir John Melton wrote that if a man found a four-leaf clover, he would soon thereafter come upon a bit of good fortune.
Wearing a shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day is a tradition begun somewhere in the 1700s. In the 1950s, Elvis touted the luck of the clover in his hit tune, “Be my Little Good Luck Charm.”
So the three-leaved shamrock became a symbol associated with St. Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland, and all things Irish. When the shamrock pops up March, it may be a sign of special sales, revelry or fanciful Irish heritage.
Along with corned beef and green beer, St. Patrick’s Day brings the Irish out in everyone.
At Paddy Murphy’s in downtown Naples, the day calls for all hands on deck. Barkeep Joey Threlkeld is gearing up for St. Patrick’s by pouring glasses of heavy Guinness, decorated with a foamy shamrock on top. The everyday crowd is diverse in the pub, and Threlkeld adds, “You have to be open. Here, you may have an 80 year old drinking shots on one side of you; a 22 year old drinking shots with him on the other.”
There are many Irish blessings or toasts familiar to all. “May you be in heaven an hour before the Devil knows your dead” would be an enviable blessing. Likewise this birthday toast; “May you live to be a hundred years, with one extra year to repent.”
The evidence of the Irish culture abounds in the US, and to try to extract it would unravel the fabric of our heritage. It has brought us courage, tenacity, whimsy and charm. No wonder that on St. Patrick’s Day, ‘everybody is Irish’.