The Seven Biggest Myths of St. Patrick's Day

Fact & Fiction
tags: Ireland, St Patricks Day

Edward O’Donnell is an Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College. He is the author of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History (Broadway Books). Learn more at www.EdwardTODonnell.com

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.

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Gareth Barton - 4/14/2006

St Patrick was not English as suggested in this article but Welsh (Not the same country). He was kidnapped from his village in Wales when he was 16. Later, after finding god, he travelled to France were he became a priest before returning to Ireland Via Cornwall, England and Wales. Please do not insult a Celtic Nation again by refering to us as English.


Gareth Barton

John Edward Philips - 3/23/2006

Gaelic wasn't banned by the invaders. Not even Cromwell, whose actual plan was genocide, "to hell or Connaught" and simply replace the Irish with English settlers, as the Welsh had been replace in England itself.

Gaelic was dropped at the instigation of Irish nationalists in the 19th century, as the only way to get home rule. Irish history is full of such incredible ironies. In fact the original invaders were arguably more Catholic than the natives, Henry II of England (who didn't even speak English) having been made Lord of Ireland by the Pope himself.

Janet Lynn Aldridge - 5/8/2005

Have you ever read about Archons, they are from the Knostic writings, ( and a Jonathan Zap article that I frist heard about them) and when I first read about them, (they are not very nice) I imagined leprechauns....or maybe reptillians.... Any thing is possible JLA

The only reason I found this site is I put a search in for my ancestor James Stanley, son of George Stanley and Joan Le Strange. he lived about 1499-1588, married to Anne Hart? ring any bells?

Jim Williams - 3/16/2005

I guess we know what color you will wear on St. Patrick's day.

As Irish, Scots (I too will wear orange tomorrow), Welsh, English, and half a dozen other ethnicities, I agree with your concerns about the IRA's terrorism. They wish to force the Protestant majority of Northern Ireland to capitulate to their threats of violence - to defeat democracy. However, they have suffered recent PR debacles in the bank robbery and the pub murder, and Ireland itself is cracking down on them. Let us hope that the Catholics of Ireland north and south reject their violent and corrupt extremism.

Note, however, that the Ulster Defense League and other Protestant extremist paramilitary organizations also went over the line into terrorism. Fortunately, their extremism seems to be in the past.

James Stanley Kabala - 3/15/2005

It seems as if the awful horror movie "Leprechaun" was actually closer to the real tradition than more positive depictions!

William Livingston - 3/18/2004

The revelation that more Irish/Americans are, as Professor Fleming alleges, Protestant than Catholic comes as no surprise to me. In my personal acquaintances of Irish decent that certainly is true. Moreover, some have abandoned Chriatianity altogether. But by the same token, it can be a matter of which moment in history a snapshot is taken. For instance, our family, Lowland Scots, was of course Catholic until the Reformation. Then some of us, most of our family remaining staunchly Catholic and allied with the Stewarts were, mostly, on the losing side in the religious contest in Scotland, albeit some converted to Protestantism. But most of us fled Scotland, some going to France, some to Germany, & some to of all places, Hungary.

Evidently, most, those who went to France & Hungary, retained their Catholic faith, but those who went to Germany, our particular branch of the family, settled in a Protestant part of Germany and consequently converted to Protestanism. We remained Protestant once in America--in the person of Johann Georg Liebenstien, age 19, who saiuled from Rotterdam aboard a vessel, the Love & Unity, which was, no kidd'n, wrecked by shore-based pirates, ship-wreckers, at Martha's Vineyard in 1732. Regardless the shipwreckm, our boy, Johann Georg, survived to make his way to the German colony in Penna., where he met, wooed & married a lass. The couple subsequently moved to what is now West Va.

Adam, Johann Georg's oldest boy,once married & raising a family despite bitter opposition from both neighbors & family, converted to Catholicism. But certainly by his grandson's time we had again become Protestant & remained Protestant, until I in turn, a mere quarter century ago, converted to Catholicism.

The point is although mostr Irish/Americans are Protestant, who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Tim Wright - 3/17/2004

It's a silly question I know, but I was stumped when a friend asked the other day where the heck the St. Patrick's Day tradition of corned beef and cabbage came from. I am, after all, supposed to be a historian and I should know these things.

I guessed that it was probably came out of workingmen's bars that offered a "free" or cheap lunch when the workers came in to buy beer on their meal break in late 19th and early 20th century factories but a quick web search turned up two semi-authentic sounding stories. One, from the History Channel website (a dubious source of information at best) indicates that traditonal Irish at Irish bacon (whatever that is) and cabbage on the feast day but found Irish bacon an unaffordable delicacy in turn-of-the-century New York, and adopted the much cheaper alternative of corned beef after being introduced to it by their Jewish neighbors. It sounds plausible, but almost too neat, and there is, of course no source information.

The second story, from a bacon website, essentially tells the same story but leaves out the Jewish connection. And, of course, there is no source information here, either.

Does anyone have any documented information about the corned beef tradition? It will make me sound so, mmm, historical as I serve up the CB&C and Guinness tonight.

Bryan Murphy - 3/15/2004

not just a harp, the Brian Boru harp. Who himself is a great story.

Paul Noonan - 3/15/2004

Actually, the official symbol of Ireland (or at least the Irish Republic) is the harp, not the shamrock.

Chris Miller - 12/11/2002

My understanding (which is quite possibly flawed)of the history behind families dropping the O' or O prefix, is that this is another relic of English invasion/colonisation: People were compelled by the English invaders, on pain of death or persecution, to drop the prefix as a sign of compliancy with the English and the renunciation of their Catholicism in favour of the English Protesdantism. Furthermore, the inhabitants of occupied Ireland were banned from speaking Gaelic, with the punishment for this horrible offence also being death.(On a side note, this explains why the language survived mostly on sparsely populated penninsulars and isolated islands - it wasn't worth the effort and expense of invading.) Many bowed to the English (understandably) and practised their religion and native tongue underground.

nick mallory - 10/10/2002

A dark side to the 'st patrick's day' rubbish and the fashion for irish nationalism in the states, where people's emotional enthusiasm was surpassed only by their historical ignorance, was that many of the dollars pushed into the collecting tins of Noraid in New York and Boston came from the pockets of 'irish' americans who were of 'scots irish' stock. That these dollars bought semtex and armalites from the Lybians and others to murder 'scots irish' in Ulster seemed not to occur to them. If Ireland was such a great country why does everyone leave it just as soon as they can? Couldn't be to escape the priest dominated society perhaps (referendums on divorce anyone?) or the economically moribund economy? The Irish miracle of late, the celtic tiger, is fuelled in equal measure by vast quantities of largesse from the European Union and a complete relaxation of the planning laws which allow anyone to build anything anywhere. Good luck to them but there's something about that tricolour which reminds me more of British soldiers being shot at (soldiers who first went to Ulster to protect the catholic minority) and bombs going off in pubs. The fact that there's been a cease fire here for nearly five years shouldn't con anyone that the troubles are over. Sinn Fein's officials at Stormont have just been caught red handed collecting information on, among other things, the home addresses of prison officers. The British Government, in its efforts to gain peace, has virtually surrendered to the IRA, ex terrorists now claim the salaries of government ministers, rather than polish their armalites on the british dole but the two communities hate each other just as much as they ever did and no amount of Irish theme pubs and St Paddy's day marches are going to change that any day soon.

Sändra Henson - 3/16/2002

Your timely article was interesting and helpful since it seems each year there are more "myths" to confront with respect to St. Patrick and the Irish. Can you recommend a few good sources regarding St. Patrick? Thanks. S. Henson

Editor's Note: Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair recently published, The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day (Routledge, 2002).