“As luck would have it” was penned by the Master, William Shakespeare, in his play “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in 1600. It means by chance. Year after year, March 17 celebrates Irish culture worldwide and commemorates St Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints. St. Patrick Day revelers often believed that carrying lucky charms on this day can bring them good fortune.
St. Patrick was born in Britain—not Ireland—to wealthy parents near the end of the fourth century. He is believed to have died on March 17, around 460 A.D. At the age of 16, Patrick was taken prisoner by a group of Irish raiders who were attacking his family’s estate. They transported him to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity. During this time, he worked as a shepherd, outdoors and away from people. Lonely and afraid, he turned to his religion for solace, becoming a devout Christian.
After more than six years as a prisoner, Patrick escaped. According to his writing, a voice—which he believed to be God’s—spoke to him in a dream, telling him it was time to leave Ireland. To do so, Patrick walked nearly 200 miles from County Mayo, where it is believed he was held, to the Irish coast. After escaping to Britain, Patrick reported that he experienced a second revelation—an angel in a dream tells him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Soon after, Patrick began religious training, a course of study that lasted more than 15 years.
After his ordination as a priest, he was sent to Ireland with a dual mission: to minister to Christians already living in Ireland and to begin to convert the Irish. (Interestingly, this mission contradicts the widely held notion that Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland.)
Familiar with the Irish language and culture, Patrick chose to incorporate traditional ritual into his lessons of Christianity instead of attempting to eradicate native Irish beliefs. For instance, he used bonfires to celebrate Easter since the Irish were used to honoring their gods with fire. He also superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross, so that veneration of the symbol would seem more natural to the Irish.
The shamrock is a symbol for Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day. And notably, this symbol specifically has three leaves, not four. This particular point has to do with the lore around St. Patrick. The stories indicate that St. Patrick used the shamrock in his mission to demonstrate the principles of the Holy Trinity – three leaflets united by a common stalk.
What about the four-leaf clover? Since, by definition, a “normal” clover only has three leaflets, a clover with four leaflets is technically just a mutated clover. This mutation is quite rare, and Druids (priests of the ancient Celts) claimed that a four-leafed clover was a good luck charm against evil spirits. These days, most people have forgotten about the “evil spirits” part and just remember that they are supposed to be good luck.
Although there were a small number of Christians on the island when Patrick arrived, most Irish practiced a nature-based pagan religion. The Irish culture centered around a rich tradition of oral legend and myth. When this is considered, it is no surprise that the story of Patrick’s life became exaggerated over the centuries. Patrick's efforts were eventually turned into an allegory in which he drove "snakes" out of Ireland, despite the fact that snakes were not known to inhabit the region.
This Scotch-Irish girl will don her green on the 17th lest she be pinched, carry a Shamrock for luck, and celebrate that St. Patrick may have had some influence on her ancestors such that she was brought up in a happy Christian home.
I leave you with this Irish Blessing:
May you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live.
--Cindy Rivers McGraw