The celebration of St Patrick's Day in Sydney was quickly established in the new colony of New South Wales.
By 1795, Judge-Advocate David Collins wrote in his diary,
On the 17th St Patrick found many votaries [followers] in the settlement ... libations to the saint were so plentifully poured, that at night the cells were full of prisoners.
Governor Macquarie established another custom in 1810 when he provided entertainments for ‘government artificers and labourers’. Later public celebration of St Patrick's Day included horse races, banquets, parades, picnics, concerts, dancing and games.
Changes in celebrations often reflected the change in the mood of the Irish citizens of Australia and their place in the wider community. St Patrick’s Day parades in Melbourne under Archbishop Daniel Mannix were assertive political statements of Catholic loyalty to Australia and also support for Irish independence.
The customs did not always originate in Ireland. St Patrick's Day parades began in North America in the 18th century and later spread to Ireland in the 20th century.
Today it’s a festive Irish cultural event imbibed by many regardless of their Irishness and in Ireland itself, it is a national holiday. It traditionally appeals to two kinds of people; those who are Irish and those who wish they were.
Why 17 March? Traditionally it’s the date on which St Patrick died, probably about the year 461 AD. So perhaps it began as an Irish wake.
So, what do we know of Patrick? Some admirers have created ‘alterative facts’ over the centuries which result in discrediting an otherwise admirable person. There’s certainly a few popular beliefs which are wrong.
Patrick isn't officially a Saint as he’s never been canonised by the Catholic Church, though he is certainly a saint ‘by acclamation’.
Patrick didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland. It’s true there aren’t any snakes there now, but it was the ice-age that got rid of them about 10,000 years before Patrick. To be fair, Patrick himself never claimed to have banished the snakes, it was later enthusiasts, perhaps seeing it as a parallel to him ridding Ireland of paganism.
Patrick's Confesio [Declaration], is his authentic literary legacy. It gives a few biographical details and an insight into his self-deprecating manner. There’s still many details we don’t know but it’s probably better to say that than make something up.
He wasn't the first Catholic missionary to Ireland. Palladius had been sent in 431, about five years before Patrick went, though he was certainly nowhere near as successful. It’s likely that others had also tried before though with limited success.
Patrick wasn't even Irish. He was first an unwilling ‘boat person’ brought there as a slave, but in the end certainly loved his new homeland.
According to his Declaration, he was born in a town called Bannavem Taburniae, probably around 385 AD. His hometown may have been in Scotland, Wales or north-east England, this hasn’t been determined. In any case, it’s clear that his parents were well to do Catholics and part of late Roman Britton. His grandfather had been a priest, and his father, Calpurnius, a town councillor and deacon.
He was named Maewyn Succat – whatever that means.
Young Maewyn was 16 years old when he was captured in a raid and became a slave in what was still radically pagan Ireland. One imagines a comfortable slightly dreamy youth perhaps not quick enough on his feet to escape the thugs.
Far from home, he clung to the family religion he had ignored as a teenager and found it gave him hope and comfort. Forced to tend his master's sheep in Ireland, he spent his six years of bondage and much time alone in prayer and contemplation.
At the suggestion of a dream, he escaped to Gaul where he studied in a monastery before returning to Britain and reuniting with his parents. They were delighted to see him and hoped he’d remain with them forever. he obviously missed them as much as they missed him, but he couldn’t sit still.
After receiving a supernatural call to preach to the heathen of Ireland he returned to Gaul and was ordained a deacon. That’s when he took the Latin name Patricius, meaning ‘having a noble father’, which is Patrick in Irish. The name may have been to honour both his earthly father and his father in heaven.
Patrick was in his mid-40s when he returned to Ireland. Palladius had not been very successful in his mission, and the returning former slave replaced him. He landed in Wicklow and travelled north converting the people of Ulster and later other parts of Ireland.
Successful cross-cultural communication
Patrick’s success is a case study for those interested in ‘missiology’ (how to be a missionary) or any other kind of cross-cultural relations. Against his will, he had been a lonely stranger in a strange land but the experience changed his identity and gave him a purpose and meaning to his life which he may not have had if he had lived out his life in the comfort which he was born to.
He was intimately familiar with the Irish clan system (his former master, Milchu, had been a chieftain). Patrick’s strategy was based on his knowledge of how Ireland worked. His aim was to convert chiefs first, who would then convert their clans through their influence. Some say Milchu was one of his earliest converts.
Though he was not solely responsible for converting the island, Patrick was more successful than anyone and developed a supporting team. He made missionary journeys all over Ireland, and soon the land at the end of the earth became known as one of Europe's Christian centres.
One belief is that Patrick used the three-leaf clover to explain the Trinity idea which was basic to his efforts to convert Irish pagans. The Shamrock was also supposedly worn to symbolise the cross. It’s hard to know if this is true. The original colour associated with Patrick was actually blue. The link could be the fact that Patrick came to symbolise Ireland – a lush green country. Wearing green and honouring Patrick both became symbols of Irish pride.
Estimates are he baptised 10,000 Irish people and planted 300 churches. Patrick knew and loved the Irish people and changed the Emerald Isle forever.
Happy Maewyn Succat’s Day!