St. Maewyn’s Day

You may know this fellow better by his adopted name: Patrick.

Patrick was named Maewyn Succat when he was born circa 385 CE to a wealthy Roman family in either Wales or Scotland. At age 16, he was kidnapped by raiders and sold as a slave to Ireland, living there for six years as a shepherd and learning about its people until he managed to escape back to England. It was when he became a priest that he changed his name to Patricius. Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary, preaching and converting the pagans to Christianity. In the Catholic church, his feast day is the day of his death, traditionally believed to be on March 17, 416 CE.

Legend has it that Patrick used the three-leaved shamrock (Irish seamróg = “little or young clover”) as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity. He may also have chosen this plant because the number 3 was significant for Celtic pagans; it is the “number of everything”. It wasn’t until the 18th century, though, that the shamrock began to be used as an Irish symbol. The shamrock (several species of Trifolium) has traditional medicinal value and was a common Victorian motif. In the Language of Flowers, the red clover signifies the virtue of industry, white clover means “think of me”, and the four-leaved variety says “be mine”.

Wearing green today? When the chivalric Order of St. Patrick was founded in the 1700s, blue was adopted as its official colour, which led to that colour – not green, which was considered unlucky – being associated with the saint. The use of green to represent Irish nationalism stems from 17th and 18th century political movements.

It’s understandable that legend, cultures and customs meld over time. It’s still an odd thing to me, however, that folk worldwide suddenly become Irish for a day on March 17 – and celebrate it in some pretty outrageous ways. I don’t march in parades or look for leprechauns, but I have been known to wear green on the day – although I wear it often, as it, along with blue, is one of my favourite colours. I don’t drink beer, so the green Guinness is out. (But that would be an insult to Guinness aficionados, anyway!)

I do think of my paternal grandmother, though. I know very little about her; my father never said much, for the very reason that he wasn’t given the chance to know her, either, and now there is no one left to ask. What I did discover through genealogical research, however, was that she emigrated as a young woman from Belfast to Canada in the early 1900s. Why? To seek a new life: employment, better housing, a marriage? I don’t know whether she had known my English-born grandfather, who was already living in Toronto, before she set foot on that ocean-crossing steamer. Regardless, they married soon after she arrived – and soon after that, came my dad! Sadly, that little family’s hopes and dreams died along with her a couple of years later in childbed, after my father’s little sister was born. A heart-wrenching story of hardship, struggle and lost dreams – but then, historically speaking – doesn’t that make me so quintessentially Irish?

Detail, Book of Kells scarf – a treasured gift from a friend.