Pagans And Saint Patrick’s Day: What Does It All Mean?

[I posted this in 2009, but discovered that it’s been getting such a response this year that I thought I’d re-post it. ~ Claire]

Ever one to ruin the fun, I couldn’t let today go by without making a few comments about Saint Patrick and the annual holiday that’s held in his honor. Most of the people I know will be wearing green in some form today, thinking of all things Irish, drinking green beer, and possibly honoring that ancient Irish tradition of getting drunk and fighting. In other words, Saint Patrick’s day is a good excuse for partying, and few people will put any more thought into it than that. That’s fine. It’s a secular holiday in the United States, even if the day is named after a Catholic bishop and missionary, and so it should all be taken with a grain of salt.

If most people know anything about Saint Patrick, it’s that his one claim to fame is that he drove the snakes from Ireland. What most people don’t realize is that the snake is a Pagan symbol, and that the snakes referred to in the Saint Patrick mythos are not meant in the literal sense, but refer to Pagans; i.e., Saint Patrick drove the Pagans (specifically, the Druids) out of Ireland. So what is celebrated on Saint Patrick’s Day with drinking and much cavorting is, ironically, the spread of Christianity throughout Ireland and the subjugation and conversion of the Druids.

I have a perspective on Saint Patrick that most Americans do not. If you don’t know already, my surname is Mulkieran. That surname is associated with the parish of Clonkennkerrill near the small modern village of Gurteen, in Galway. It was first recorded in the early 11th Century, and other early recordings include Maelisa O’Mulkieran who died in 1197. My mother was a passionate genealogist, who traced our family farther back than that. So you might say that my Irish bonafides have been well established.

I mention this for no other reason than to be able to point out that my perception of Saint Patrick when I was growing up was vastly different from the popular secular view. My mother was a seventh generation hereditary witch, from a long line of women who rejected the Christian tradition of assuming the names of their husbands and kept her family name. There’s not a hyphen among the seven women who preceded me, and each one of them passed down the Pagan traditions which I hold dear today. Among these was a distaste for Saint Patrick (to say the least – my grandmother would spit at the mention of his name), who my family saw as a Christian invader, a missionary who was instrumental in the subjugation of the Irish isle to the Christian church (and who, worst of all, wasn’t even Irish).

It wasn’t arbitrary that the day honoring Saint Patrick was placed on the 17th of March. The festival was designed to coincide, and, it was hoped, to replace the Pagan holiday known as Ostara; the second spring festival which occurs each year, which celebrates the rebirth of nature, the balance of the universe when the day and night are equal in length, and which takes place at the Spring Equinox (March 22nd this year). In other words, Saint Patrick’s Day is yet another Christian replacement for a much older, ancient Pagan holiday; although generally speaking Ostara was most prominently replaced by the Christian celebration of Easter (the eggs and the bunny come from Ostara traditions, and the name “Easter” comes from the Pagan goddess Eostre).

I don’t celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. I don’t begrudge those who do, and it doesn’t bother me that a lot of my friends will be drinking green beer and wearing buttons that say “Kiss me, I’m Irish”. Saint Patrick’s day in practice has become a secular holiday, much like Christmas, that has only the vaguest hints of its religious underpinnings still intact. So if you want to drink green beer and act like an idiot, please do. It won’t bother me in the slightest.

I actually strike quite a figure on Saint Patrick’s day. When nearly everyone else is wearing green in some fashion, I usually wear red and black, in various degrees and styles. For me, the red represents the blood of my ancestors, who were driven out of Ireland or were subjugated by any one of many zealous Christian missionaries. The black is for the darkness that fell over the world with the rise and dominance of the Christian church and the forced installation of patriarchy that replaced the ancient reverence for the feminine divine.

The only green I wear on Saint Patrick’s Day is a pendant that was handed down from my great-grandmother. It’s an oak leaf made of silver, the leaves of which are inlaid with emeralds. Family tradition holds that the gems were brought over from Ireland when the family came to America in the mid 1800’s, and before that were passed down through the generations for centuries.

The significance of the oak leaf should be obvious to most Pagans. It was a crime to fell an oak tree in Pagan Ireland. The ancient Druids wouldn’t meet unless an oak tree was present. The old expression “knock on wood” comes from the Druids, who would knock on the oak tree to say hello to the tree spirit. And my family tradition holds that an oak leaf worn at the breast, touching the heart, will protect the wearer from all deception and the world’s false glamour. Oaks are protectors, and to me they represent strength and renewal; that spark of the old ways that can never be fully stamped out by Christianity, and which keep popping up in the least expected places.

Why not wear a shamrock? Simple. Legend credits Saint Patrick with teaching the Irish about the concept of the Christian Trinity by showing people the shamrock, using it to highlight the Christian belief of “three divine persons in the one God”. Wearing a shamrock to me is tantamount to wearing a Christian cross. I don’t begrudge those who do, but I know the meaning behind it, and I can’t follow you there. You might as well ask a Jew to wear a swastika.

In closing, all I’ll say is that instead of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, I’ll be looking forward to Ostara. It’s usually about this time of year that I feel the first stirrings of Spring in the air, and it really begins to feel like the Earth around me is beginning to reawaken from its long sleep. You’ll see it in the step of every young person you see, as their bodies respond to the marshaling of energies and their hormones start raging. The Wheel of the Year keeps turning, and this time of the year is all about renewal. It’s the reason we all find ourselves flirting shamelessly with one another.

If I’ll be celebrating anything on Saint Patrick’s Day, it’s that my world is passing from Winter into Spring. Flowers will soon be popping into existence all around me. And there’s no better time of the year that you can feel so alive. I’d much rather celebrate that than the subjugation and extermination of Pagans in Ireland.

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Paula
11 years ago

Thank you for this- very well put.

Blessings

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Wow. What a wonderful, thought-provoking article. I plan to share it with all of my Pagan friends.

Blessed be!

Tami
Tami
10 years ago

This is a wonderful article…when I was a kid my family wasn’t religious in any way, so St. Patrick’s Day was just a day to wear green and “be Irish”. These days I know the truth and do not celebrate it myself anymore. I wish more people would be honest with themselves about all of the Christian holidays and their pagan roots. Thanks for the post!! 🙂

Elizabeth McNally
Elizabeth McNally
10 years ago

As a friend pointed out to me that St. Patrick was a strict and pious man whose birthday is celebrated with excessive drinking and partying, and in some places, public nudity. Basically, we kinda won. 🙂