17 March is St Patrick’s Day. It is the feast day of St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland who, legend claims, drove all of the snakes off the island.
But, St Patrick is little more than a Big Idea. Legend swirls around him. And, although there almost certainly was a historic figure on whom those legends are based, little of the truth survives. What there is remains so cloaked in myth that it is hard to distinguish.
So, what is the Big Idea of St Patrick? And what do you need to know about the modern phenomenon of St Patrick’s Day?
Who Was St Patrick?
I don’t want to regurgitate the myths of St Patrick uncritically, as if the story is, in some sense, ‘true’. It is not. But neither am I equipped to assess the historicity of competing elements of the story. Even the basics, such as dates of his birth and death are subject to competing claims. And it doesn’t help that parts of his story seem to overlap with the even more scanty records of St Palladius.
What we do Know about St Patrick
Patrick was an Anglo-Roman, born somewhere in England in the late 4th Century of the common era. His father was a minor local functionary, with connections to the church, while his grandfather had been a priest.
At some point, his calling led him to an appointment to minister in Ireland. Probably his mission was to support the growing Christian community, as much as to spread the gospel.
His work was focused in the North of Ireland (then one ‘country’ under many small kingdoms, with a single high king). The location of his base probably arose due to support from a powerful chieftain or local king. He became Bishop of Armagh.
What May be True about St Patrick
St Patrick probably grew up in the west of England, and accounts suggest different locations from the Bristol areas and the southern Welsh marches all the way up to the northwest, in Cumbria or even the Scottish marches. His claims to have been abducted and made a slave in Ireland during his youth are often quoted, but there are inconsistencies that serious scholars point to. He claims to have returned home to England and then trained for ministry. It is likely part of his training was in France.
What is almost Certainly Myth
The two best known ‘facts’ about St Patrick are anything but.
Firstly, there is absolutely no evidence that there were ever any snakes on the island of Ireland. So, he did not cast them out of Ireland, as legend suggests. Since the last Ice Age – when it was far too cold for reptiles to survive – the Irish Channel has blocked their travel from mainland Europe, via Britain. Most likely, the myth originates in a metaphorical banishment of the ‘serpent’ from the Eden of Ireland.
Secondly, the use of the three-lobed shamrock plant (a clover) as a metaphor for the Christian Holy Trinity emerged long after the time of St Patrick. That legend ascribes the lesson to him says more about his place in Irish affection than about historical pedagogy.
What is the Significance of St Patrick?
My Oxford Dictionary of Saints has around 1,250 entries. And that’s just a sampling of what the Catholic and Orthodox churches have to offer. So, what’s the Big Idea behind St Patrick?
For me, I think this legendary figure – and his modern significance – tells us something very important about people. And thus, it has a lesson for businesses.
The Big Idea is our love of foundation myths and origin stories. We see it in modern cinema, played out with growing numbers of origin stories of long-beloved fictional characters, from Sherlock Holmes to Superman, and Harry Potter to the Hulk.
And we also lap up the foundation myths of our favourite companies: like Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Ikea. If you want to strengthen the loyalty of your customers and staff, a good origin story is a powerful asset.
What about St Patrick’s Day?
Like all Catholic saints, St Patrick has a feast day. And his falls on 17 March, during the Lent, the run-up to Easter.
During Lent, many Christians fast or, more commonly, eat modestly. Traditionally, that means avoiding meats. They also give up certain luxuries to commemorate the sacrifice made by Jesus during his 40 days in the desert.
So, St Patrick’s Day is a chance to waive the rules of Lent and celebrate with dancing and feasting – traditionally on bacon.
Origin of the Celebrations
A lot of the pomp and pageantry we accept as ‘traditional’ for St Patrick’s Day arose among emigrant Irish populations in the United States – most notably New York and then, later, in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
While it first started as a spontaneous celebration among Irish soldiers serving with the British Army in America, in 1762, parading became a big thing in the late 1840s. This followed a huge influx of migrants from Ireland to New York, following the Potato Famine of 1845.
St Patrick’s Day parades were a way for the large emigrant community to express their pride in their origins and to assert their political power. Increasingly, New York, Boston, and Chicago politicians were compelled to heed the requests of Irish voters.
In Ireland and beyond, modern St Patrick’s Day celebrations have moved away from the traditional religious celebration of the life of St Patrick. They merge religious symbols with the mythology of St Patrick, taking the shamrock as their symbol. And into this mix, they also throw many aspects of pagan myth; most notably the leprechaun. Another element of a heady mix is a political infusion from Irish nationalism. And the final component is a good dose of commercialisation with the sales of tacky trinkets and vast amounts of beer. Some associate the celebration of St Patrick with public ribaldry and drunkenness.
What is Your experience of ST Patrick, St Patrick’s Day, and Corporate Origin Stories?
We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.