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St Patrick is celebrated all over the world on 17 March.
St Patrick is celebrated all over the world on 17 March. / SUR

The mysterious Apostle of Ireland

  • Legend says his birth name was Maewyn Succat, but he changed it to Patricius after becoming a priest

St Patrick's Day parties and parades will be taking place all around the world today, as Irish nationals remember the Apostle of Ireland, the most celebrated saint of them all.

Dublin's St Patrick's Day Parade and Festival is one of the largest in the world. The four-day event is attended by approximately 500,000 people, who celebrate with marching bands and folk music, Irish dancing displays, carnival-style floats and plenty of Irish humour.

However, parades in his honour first began in North America in the eighteenth century and did not spread to Ireland until the twentieth century.

The first parade was held in New York City on 17 March 1762, and today it still uses the same route as it did more than 250 years previous. However, not every city goes all-out in its celebratory efforts.

The Irish village of Dripsey once held the title of the shortest St Patrick's Day Parade in the World. The route was just 26 yards; the distance between the only two pubs in the village. The parade was abolished after one of the pubs closed down in 2007.

For most of the twentieth century, St Patrick's Day was considered a strictly religious holiday in Ireland and the nation's pubs remained closed.

The day was converted to a national holiday in 1970 and this is when the pubs were given permission to open. This must have been a great relief for the big breweries, because surveys declare that the consumption of Guinness more than doubles on 17 March.

As with most versions concerning the feats and achievements of saints and holy figures, the history of St Patrick is filled with as much myth as it is fact.

Some of what is known about St Patrick comes from the Declaration, which was allegedly written by Patrick himself. Most available details of his life are from subsequent Irish annals, but these are generally dismissed as folklore.

The dates of his life cannot be fixed with certainty, but it is generally believed that he was active as a missionary in Ireland during the second half of the fifth century.

According to Irish legend, St Patrick, who was born in Britain, wasn't originally called Patrick. His birth name was Maewyn Succat, but he changed his name to Patricius after becoming a priest.

He is regarded as the founder of Christianity in Ireland and legend claims that, when teaching the Irish about the doctrine, St Patrick used a three-leafed clover as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity.

It is also claimed he drove all the snakes from Ireland with his staff, even though modern scientists suggests that Ireland has never had snakes due to its climate.

The cane with which he is said to have banished the snakes was venerated for centuries, only to be publicly burned in 1538 under the orders of the archbishop of Dublin.

Another legend claimed that his walking stick grew into a living tree.

During his journey through Ireland, he is understood to have carried an ash walking cane, which he would thrust into the ground whenever he was preaching. Legend claims that the message of Christianity took so long to get through to the residents of a village called Aspatria; the stick had taken root by the time he was ready to move on.

Blue, not green

Even though a sea of green will engulf most towns and cities in Ireland during the saint's celebrations, several early artworks depict him wearing blue vestments. While green is now the excepted colour of Ireland, blue is still the official state colour.

King Henry VIII used the Irish harp in gold on a blue flag to represent the country. The harp has appeared on Irish gravestones since the medieval period and it is certain that it was popular in Irish legend and culture long before that period.

Holy relics

A few of the saint's relics can still be viewed in Ireland today. St Patrick's Bell, along with pieces of his jaw and tooth, are displayed in the National Museum in Dublin.

The bell, first mentioned in the 'Book of Cuanu' in the year 552, was part of a collection of relics removed from his tomb sixty years after his death.

Although most historians believe that St Patrick died in 461, the Annals of the Four Masters, chronicles of medieval Irish history, claim that he died in 493. He is said to have been 122 years old.

He is believed to have been buried at the cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, alongside St Brigid and St Columba; although this has never been verified.

One thing that can be said with complete conviction is that St Patrick is the most venerated saint of them all.