The saying goes: “We are all a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.” It’s a convenient way to excuse the desire for a good Irish reel and a few beers (possible dyed green, possibly just Irish in origin), and it’s a reason for a party in Lent. After all, we don’t count saints’ days as Lent, right? If you’re me, it’s an excuse to sing one of my favourite hymns, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, though I don’t really need much of an excuse for that. I sing hymns around the house a lot. But what do we really know about St. Patrick?
Patrick was a 5th-century Christian missionary and bishop in Ireland, and was of Roman descent, born in Roman occupied Britain some time in the 4th century. Tradition (most of which comes from a supposed autobiography) says that he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland when he was 16 years old, and was a slave and a shepherd there for some time until he escaped and went back to Britain, guided by God. He went on to be ordained a priest, and later returned to Ireland to spread the gospel of Jesus, and to convert the Irish.
There are lots of legends of St. Patrick, including the one that says that he drove all of the snakes from Ireland. There is a pretty good chance that, like our own island of Newfoundland, Ireland had no snakes to begin with, but the story does no real harm.
One of my favourite things about St. Patrick is his explanation of the Holy Trinity using a shamrock. The shamrock was already considered a sacred plant in Ireland, believed to announced the arrival of spring. So, in the way that was Christianity often has a habit of taking over local customs and putting a new spin on them, Patrick used the humble shamrock to explain how God could be three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost), and yet be only one God, just as the three leaves were part of the one plant. It’s a beautiful, simple, and clear illustration, and whether Patrick himself came up with it, the symbolism continues to be useful to us today, and has aided generations of faithful Christians.
Here in Newfoundland, we have lots of people who have a connection to Ireland—you can hear it in the way that we talk, and there are plenty of Irish traditions that were brought here and adopted as our own. It seems perfectly in order then for us to enjoy a little break in our Lenten fasts, to wear our green, and to enjoy some good tunes. As I said, I love St. Patrick’s Breastplate, the words of which are said to have been written by Patrick himself. There are a few tunes out there for it, and it might feel a bit “all over the place” with the tune changing as the hymn verses vary, but I promise you that it’s wonderful. If you don’t know it, give it a try this year. I’ll leave you with the last verse:
I bind unto myself the name,
The strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.