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Forgotten Customs of St. Patrick’s Day

Above: Statue of Saint Patrick at Croagh Patrick, near Westport, County Mayo, Ireland. Photo by Kelly Ferguson


Like St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day has unfortunately become a secularized holiday. But rather than remarking on leprechauns and good luck, Catholics have a moral responsibility to reclaim St. Patrick’s Day for the honor of one of the greatest of all saints. And like other great saints, unique customs have emerged to honor his feastday.

Who is Saint Patrick?

St. Patrick was born around 370 AD in Scotland, and at the age of 16, he was kidnapped and sent as a slave in Ireland. St. Patrick was not profoundly religious as a child, but in Ireland when he was sent to work as a shepherd, he began to pray. After six years of service and fervent prayer, St. Patrick received a dream where he was commanded to return to Britain. St. Patrick escaped Ireland and returned to Britain. In Britain, he entered the Catholic Church like his father and grandfather before him.

St. Patrick was ordained a priest by Saint Germanus in 432 and later made a bishop. He later returned to Ireland to convert his people to Christianity. Pope Saint Celestine sent him to evangelize England, then Ireland. St. Patrick’s chariot driver was Saint Odran, and Saint Jarlath was one of his students. He advocated against slavery, idolatry, sun worship, and paganism! Shortly after his death, slavery was abolished in Ireland.

Some reports claim he built between 300-600 churches and countless schools and hospitals. In his 33 years in Ireland, he converted nearly the entire country. He taught the Trinity by using a three-leaf clover. Because of his work, Ireland became known as the Land of Saints. St. Patrick died around 461 AD in Ireland, where he worked for years to evangelize.

The Traditional Roman Breviary relates the following powerful account of his life, including the often-untold penance he performed nightly:

Patrick, called the apostle of Ireland, was born in Great Britain. His father’s name was Calphumius. Conchessa, his mother, is said to have been a relation of St. Martin, bishop of Tours. He was several times taken captive by the barbarians, when he was a boy, and was put to tend their flocks. Even in that tender age, he gave signs of the great sanctity he was afterwards to attain. Full of the spirit of faith, and of the fear and love of God, he used to rise at the earliest dawn of day, and, in spite of snow, frost, or rain, go to offer up his prayers to God. It was his custom to pray a hundred times during the day, and a hundred during the night. After his third deliverance from slavery, he entered the ecclesiastical state and applied himself, for a considerable time, to the study of the sacred Scriptures. Having made several most fatiguing journeys through Gaul, Italy, and the islands of the Mediterranean, he was called by God to labour for the salvation of the people of Ireland. Pope Saint Celestine gave him power to preach the Gospel, and consecrated him bishop. Whereupon, he set out for Ireland.

It would be difficult to relate how much this apostolic man had to suffer in the mission thus entrusted to him: he had to bear with extraordinary trials, fatigues, and adversaries. But, by the mercy of God, that land, which heretofore had worshipped idols, so well repaid the labour wherewith Patrick had preached the Gospel, that it was afterwards called the island of saints. He administered holy Baptism to many thousands: he ordained several bishops, and frequently conferred Holy Orders in their several degrees; he drew up rules for virgins and widows, who wished to lead a life of continency. By the authority of the Roman Pontiff, he appointed Armagh the metropolitan See of the whole island, and enriched that church with the saints’ relics, which he had brought from Rome. God honoured him with heavenly visions, with the gift of prophecy and miracles; all which caused the name of the saint to be held in veneration in almost every part of the world.

Besides his daily solicitude for the churches, his vigorous spirit kept up an uninterrupted prayer. For it is said, that he was wont to recite every day the whole psalter, together with the canticles and the hymns, and two hundred prayers: that he every day knelt down three hundred times to adore God; and that at each canonical hour of the day, he signed himself a hundred times with the sign of the cross. He divided the night into three parts: the first was spent in the recitation of a hundred psalms, during which he genuflected two hundred times: the second was spent in reciting the remaining fifty psalms, which he did standing in cold water, and his heart, eyes, and hands lifted up to heaven; the third he gave to a little sleep, which he took laid upon a bare stone. Being a man of extraordinary humility, he imitated the apostles, and practised manual labour. At length, being worn out by his incessant fatigues in the cause of the Church, powerful in word and work, having reached an extreme old age he slept in the Lord, after being refreshed with the holy mysteries. He was buried at Down, in Ulster, in the fifth century of the Christian era.

A Holy Day of Obligation in Ireland

While it is unfortunate and even deplorable that so many in the secular world reduce this day to gluttony and drunkenness, the Church keeps today as a Holy Day. In fact, in Ireland today it is a Holy Day of Obligation. Up until the 1970s, bars were closed in Ireland on this day in observance of the fact that it was a Holy Day of Obligation, a day when Mass attendance is required and mundane affairs such as shopping are forbidden.

Throughout the world, those of Irish descent should rejoice today in the missionary work of the great St. Patrick who bore many sufferings in order to rid Ireland of paganism and plant the Gospel of Christ in the Irish peoples. In fact, the growing presence of Irish immigrants throughout early America not only on the East Coast but heavily in places like modern day Colorado helped make St. Patrick one of the most common names for parishes in the United States.

Fasting and Abstinence on St. Patrick’s Day

Since St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, it coincides with the traditional Lenten fast which traditionally required 40 days of fasting and abstinence from meat. Even in Ireland where it is a Holy Day of Obligation, the fast and abstinence on Holy Days of Obligation is not abrogated in Lent without a specific dispensation. In fact, the Irish people kept the strictness of abstinence even from animal products during Lent longer than many other nations.

Yet the custom developed of such dispensations. With the growing number of Irish immigrants to America in the early 1800s, for instance, special attention was given to dispense from the law of abstinence when St. Patricks’ Day fell on a Friday. This was done for the members of the Charitable Irish Society of Boston in 1837 and would become customary in the United States. Yet it must be clearly stated there is no incompatibility between fasting and abstaining and celebrating liturgical solemnities. Even Sundays of Lent used to be required days of abstinence (but not fast). Let us fast and abstain always on St. Joseph’s Day, Annunciation Day, and St. Patrick’s Day each year during Lent. Our adherence to and preservation of the Traditional Catholic Faith requires this.

Even with the fast, it is possible to honor St. Patrick’s Day with a loaf of traditional Irish soda bread. Check your local bakery or grocery store and get a loaf to have at dinner.

Hail, Glorious Saint Patrick

The great love of St. Patrick has transpired into songs and celebrations in his honor. For instance, those looking to honor St. Patrick this year may want to listen to Hail Glorious St. Patrick. The version sung by Frank Patterson, freely available on YouTube, is especially moving for those of Irish ancestry.

St. Patrick and the Easter Fire

In one interesting story, St. Patrick in defiance of and in opposition to the cannibalistic Druid religion started the practice of large bonfires on Holy Saturday night. Father Weiser in Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs states:

Irish bishops and monks who came to the European continent in the sixth and seventh centuries brought with them an ancient rite of their own: the setting and blessing of big bonfires outside the church on Holy Saturday night. Saint Patrick himself, the Father and Founder of the Church in Ireland, had started this tradition, to supplant the Druidic pagan spring fires with a Christian and religious fire symbol of Christ, the Light of the World

That tradition continues to this day. Listen to the story here.

All Irish Saints

Ireland is home to over 300 canonized saints. On St. Patrick’s Day, let us honor them and pray for Ireland and the Irish people, especially that they rekindle their Catholicity and ever stand firm in the Church’s teachings and in the Faith. This is especially true in regards to the nation’s laws on life. To this end, praying the Litany of All Irish Saints would be an appropriate custom to observe each year on March 17th. No matter if we live in Ireland or not, all Catholics rejoice today in the life and example of St. Patrick.

O Holy St. Patrick, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

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