March 17th marks the annual celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day, or Lá Fhéile Pádraig in Irish. The holiday honors its fifth-century namesake, Saint Patrick, Ireland’s shamrock-loving patron saint, who died on this date in 461 A.D.
These days, the holiday is observed all over the world to celebrate Irish cultural heritage, which is ironic considering Patrick himself wasn’t Irish. Nor was Patrick his real name.
So, who was Saint Patrick?
Allegedly born Maewyn Succat in Britain in the 4th century, Saint Patrick’s personal history is a colorful mix of legend and fact. In his autobiographical work, Confessio, or The Confession of Saint Patrick, he explains how he was enslaved by Irish slave traders for several years before eventually escaping and fleeing back home to Britain.
Patrick would later return to Ireland as a missionary, introducing Christianity to Ireland. (And famously using the shamrock, a long-running symbol of Ireland, as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity.)
He was also famous for driving out all the snakes from Ireland, although it’s generally understood that this was a figurative allusion to the Druids; Ireland likely never had snakes.
Poetry was also among Saint Patrick’s cultural contributions, and he’s credited with penning The Deer’s Cry, an Old Irish hymn dating back to the 400s A.D.
Do People in Ireland still speak Gaelic?
An Caighdeán Oifigiúil is the official standard for Irish language and grammar, although, interestingly, the Irish language has no standard pronunciation. Because of that, the phonology of the language varies across speakers of Irish Gaelic, and across its sister languages: Scottish Gaelic and Manx. That doesn’t sound confusing at all …
The language is roughly broken down into somewhat distinct dialect areas: Munster to the south, Connacht in the west of Ireland, and Ulster in Northern Ireland. Each dialect varies in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar; however, there’s a mutual intelligibility amongst speakers of different Gaelic dialects. Oh, good.
As a result of the Great Famine (known outside of Ireland as the Irish Potato Famine) in the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish Gaelic language lost a great number of its speakers to death and poverty-driven emigration.
The Gaelic Revival movement, which began at the end of the nineteenth century, encouraged the learning and use of the Irish language throughout Ireland. Today, there are just over 72,000 people who use Irish Gaelic as a first language. And you can bet they’ll all be wearing green on Saint Patrick’s Day.