Shamrocks, Snakes, Slavery, and Golden Souls at the End of the Rainbow

Being born on March 17, and having an Irish last name leads me to have more reflections and conversations about St. Patrick’s Day than the average person, as I’ve written elsewhere.

Shamrocks: Legend has it that British-born St. Patrick used a shamrock to teach Irish pagans about the trinity. However, there are a few problems with this:

  1. The word shamrock doesn’t come into use until a thousand years after St. Patrick’s death and it took nearly as long for this legend to develop.
  2. There’s disagreement on if there actually is such a thing as a shamrock and, if it they exist, if they’re capable of growing in non-Irish soil.
  3. Most significantly, St. Patrick never alludes to anything like this in his only two extant writings, the Confessio and the Epistola. Aside from these two documents, we really don’t know anything else about Ireland’s British Bishop.

Snakes: Ever heard about St. Patrick chasing all the snakes out of Ireland? Uh-uh. Didn’t happen. The island never had snakes. And, again, he never wrote anything about chasing, killing, or even screaming and running away from snakes. Nobody mentions this legend until 600 years after the approximate date of his death. And, about that date. March 17 is said to be St. Patrick’s date of death, not birth. Nobody recorded the date, it just started showing up on liturgical calendars centuries later.

Slavery: Patrick’s father had a successful business, enriched by slave labor. Ironically, Patrick was kidnapped from Britain and sold into slavery in Ireland at age 16. After six-years-a-slave, Patrick escaped back to Britain. He trained for the ministry and dreamt that God was calling him to go back to preach in Ireland. He was enslaved again for a short period of time, but Patrick refused to be deterred from his purpose, describing himself as being bound by the Spirit to minister there.

Golden souls: Depictions of leprechauns replace cherubs as soon as Valentine’s Day is over. However, the clever little creatures with pots of gold at the end of rainbows have nothing to do with St. Patrick. This saint denounced greed and developed a love for souls over gold, arguing for people to be prized over possessions.

St. Patrick wrote his fiery Epistola as a call for repentance and reparations from those who had killed, enslaved, and sold women and men he had just baptized and anointed. In doing so, he was putting his life on the line for a holistic ministry. He wasn’t satisfied with people’s soul’s being saved while their bodies were in bondage:

It is not that I would choose to let anything so blunt and harsh come from my mouth, but I am driven by the zeal for God. And the truth of Christ stimulates me, for love of neighbors and children: for these, I have given up my homeland and my parents, and my very life to death…

The Most High does not accept the gifts of evildoers. The one who offers a sacrifice taken from what belongs to the poor is like one who sacrifices a child in the very sight of the child’s father. Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach. The angel of death will drag such a one away, to be crushed by the anger of dragons.

St. Patrick continued by urging his followers to resist flattering these traffickers and to boycott them instead:

all the holy and humble of heart should not fawn on such people, nor even share food or drink with them, nor accept their alms, until such time as they make satisfaction to God in severe penance and shedding of tears, and until they set free the men-servants of God and the baptised women servants of Christ, for whom he died and was crucified.

Shouldn’t commemorations of St. Patrick’s legacy aspire to more than wearing green clothes, eating green cookies and cupcakes, and turning rivers green for a day? Before drinking your green beer, why not draft a modern version of his Epistola?

That’s what seeks to do every month.

By Carl McRoy

2 thoughts on “Shamrocks, Snakes, Slavery, and Golden Souls at the End of the Rainbow

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and reply @beroe64. Will you let us know when you write your own ‘Epistola’?


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