Maewyn Succat, Patrick’s given Roman name, was born to a wealthy family in the Roman Empire. The exact location of his birthplace, Bannavem Taburniae, is unknown, but it is believed to be “near the Western sea”, as described in his autobiography, “The Confessio”. Maewyn’s father was a Christian deacon and minor Roman official, his grandfather was a priest, and his sister is Saint Darerca of Ireland. It is undoubtedly that Patrick was raised in a Christian household, although there are differing accounts of his conversion to Christianity. Some sources suggest that he converted from paganism while he was a slave in Ireland, while a more likely scenario says that Maewyn was exposed to Christianity throughout his early childhood.
When he was 16 years old, his village was raided by a band of Irish marauders and Maewyn was taken captive. During this time, the Roman Empire began to lose its power over its ever-expanding empire and such raids were becoming more common. Young boys like Maewyn were often taken to herd sheep and cattle, while girls were taken to work as servants, cooking and cleaning for the chieftains who owned them. Maewyn was taken to County Antrim in the north of Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd for a local chieftain on the slopes of Mount Slemish.
Living in isolation, deprived of food, and lacking proper clothing, Maewyn’s only company was his flock and his ever-growing faith in God. According to his writings in “The Confessio”, he prayed as many as 100 times a day and 100 times at night. Six years into his enslavement, an angel appeared to him in a dream and said; “You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country”. The angel instructed him to find a ship bound for the European continent, and Maewyn journeyed on foot for 200 miles through peat bogs and forests to reach a port. Despite being an escaped slave, he was able to convince the crew of a cargo ship to allow him passage.
Upon arriving at the mainland, the ship and its crew became lost for several weeks in a land devoid of food. The crew grew skeptical of Maewyn’s faith and began to chastise him for his piety. They questioned why his God was not helping them in their dire state of hunger. To which Maewyn replied; “Turn in faith with all your hearts to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him”. Immediately after, a stampede of pigs appeared, providing ample food for the crew. This miraculous event led to Maewyn’s first converts.
Maewyn eventually returned home to his parents, but his religious visions did not stop. He heard a voice calling him; “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us”. He understood this to mean he was to return to Ireland to serve the people. In 418 AD, he was ordained as a Deacon and in 432 AD, he was consecrated as a Bishop and given the name Patricius or Naomh Pádraig in Gaelic.
With the knowledge of Ireland’s language and customs, his religious training, and his life experiences, Patricius was uniquely suited to convert and baptize the island’s Druid priests, chieftains, and aristocrats. He successfully converted thousands of individuals before his death on March 17, 461.
Since St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint, St. Patrick’s Day is considered a holy day of obligation for Christians in Ireland, who are expected to attend Church services. Historically, Irish Christians would attend church services and then go about their day. The priests were eager to remind them not to drink alcohol on such a sacred day. St. Patrick was relatively unknown outside of Ireland until March 17, 1737, when a group of over two dozen Presbyterians who had emigrated from Northern Ireland gathered to celebrate St. Patrick and formed the Charitable Irish Society to assist distressed Irishmen in America. The Charitable Irish Society still holds an annual dinner on St. Patrick’s Day to this day.
After that first charitable celebration, St. Patrick’s day remained relatively obscure and continued to simply be a Holy Day of Obligation. Until the Revolutionary War and Brother General George Washington needed to boost his troops’ spirits.
The connection between St. Patrick, the Revolution, and Freemasonry becomes clearer when considering the situation of the Continental Army at Morristown, NJ during the winter of 1779-1780. The Army was facing the coldest winter in recorded history, with 28 snowstorms from November 1779 until April 1780, burying the encampment under six feet of snow. The soldiers lived in basic log huts, slept on straw, and huddled together for warmth. The conditions made it difficult to deliver supplies or hunt forcing the men to go days without food, leading to a loss of morale. The soldiers were losing the battle without even waging war. In such dire conditions, a moral boost was desperately needed.
The Irish represented the largest immigrant group to arrive in the colonies in the 1700s, mainly Presbyterians from the Northern Provence of Ulster. The first celebration of St. Patrick’s Day was in Boston in 1737, but it remained a quiet religious holiday for many years. The Scotch-Irish who immigrated in these early days were driven from their home by British oppression and had a strong rebellious spirit against the British Crown. One-quarter to one-half of the Continental Army were Irish born or of close ancestry. Most of the Generals were born in Ireland or had parents still living in Ireland.
Brother General George Washington recognized the necessity of boosting morale among the Continental Army during the harsh winter. Brother Washington knowing the Irish heritage among many of his soldiers wanted to show solidarity with the “brave and generous” Irish people who were fighting for their own independence against the English, and declared St. Patrick’s Day a holiday for his troops. This was the first day off they had in over a year, and it was a much-needed boost for morale. Although today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are often festive and lively, Washington emphasized that he expected his troops to celebrate in a disciplined manner and warned that “the celebration of the day will not be attended with the least rioting or disorder.” Although the celebration may not have involved abundant food and drink, the troops did enjoy a hogshead of rum provided by their commander.
For those who are curious, a “hogshead” is about 63 US gallons. Let’s hope those troops had plenty.
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