I am writing this on Saint Patrick’s Day: March 17, 2020.
Among his other achievements, St. Patrick, it is said, drove all the snakes out of Ireland. The world could use a St. Patrick today to drive out the coronavirus from the planet. Somewhat of an upscale from a single country.
Linguistic aside: the English language plural of virus is viruses. “Virus” is a Latin word that does not have a plural at all. Linguistic purists and nitpickers will insist that the plural of virus is viri or virii but they are only being pedantic, and if you say “virii” in public, people will point at you and snicker.
Of course, that business about snakes is one of several myths about St. Patrick. If Ireland ever even had snakes, the ice age, during which the entire island country was a big glacier, would have taken care of serpents. Once the ice melted, snakes would have no way of getting to Ireland, as they could not swim there. In any case, the entire fossil record of Ireland shows no snakes, either before or after St. Patrick.
There are other myths about Patrick as well. No one knows exactly when he lived, but references he makes in the two written works attributed to him suggest that he lived in the mid-5th to mid-6th century. Though he is considered the patron saint of Ireland, he was not Irish, having been born in Great Britain or — according to some scholars — in Italy, as both his parents were Italian. There may even have been two of him, as there were apparently two saintly persons of that name at around the same time.
Patrick called himself Patricius in the two surviving documents attributed to him, which were written in Latin. When he was 16 and living in Roman Britain, he was either kidnapped or ran away (there are conflicting versions of the story) and ended up in Ireland where he spent six years as a shepherd. During that time, he heard the voice of God and decided to become a priest. Ireland was almost entirely a pagan or Druid country, so Patrick returned to England to study for the priesthood, then he returned to Ireland to convert the natives.
The shamrock, a native 3-leaved plant of Ireland, is associated with St. Patrick because he allegedly used it to help teach about the holy trinity. By the way, though shamrocks are green and Ireland is associated with the color green, St. Patrick’s preferred color was blue.
The biggest myth about St. Patrick is that he is a saint. He was never canonized by any pope, so his “sainthood” is by popular acclaim. His feast day, March 17, was celebrated only in Roman Catholic churches in Ireland until the mass immigration of Irish Catholics to the US beginning in the 17th century. St. Patrick’s Day soon evolved into a secular holiday (leprechauns? pots of gold? green beer?) that is now celebrated nearly all over the planet: it is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival.
As a kid, I was never fond of St. Patrick’s Day. I grew up in New England and was a clarinet-playing member of the marching band in my middle school and high school. We were obliged to perform every year in the St. Patrick’s Day parade and it was always an open question whether my exposed fingers would suffer frostbite.
This year, the parades and parties are being canceled or cut back due to the coronavirus, which brings us back to where we started.
Other than St. Patrick, can you name any other saints whose feast days have become secular “holidays”? I can think of two, and there is as much mystery and disagreement among historians about those two as there is about St. Patrick. They would be St. Nicholas and St. Valentine. The latter has become so secularized that he’s even lost the “St.” We refer only to Valentine’s Day any more. No one says St. Valentine unless they are referring to the infamous 1929 gangland massacre.