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Eric Douglas: Conversation starters about St. Patrick

For many people, St. Patrick’s Day is about shamrocks, drinking green beer and parties. Most people don’t realize who St. Patrick was.

Legend says St. Patrick banished snakes from Ireland after they attacked him while on a 40-day fast. For some, that would be enough to make him a hero worth toasting. But considering that Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic, there were never any snakes there in the first place. The snakes were a metaphor for Patrick bringing Christianity to the island and supplanting the pagans.

The shamrock has significance, too. The legends say that Patrick used the three-leafed plant to explain the Christian Holy Trinity to his new converts. The four-leafed clover didn’t have anything to do with him.

St. Patrick carried a walking staff made of ash with him on his journeys. In one St. Patrick story, he stuck his walking stick in the ground while he spoke to a community. In what is known as Aspatria (ash of Patrick), it took so long for the people to understand what he was trying to teach them, his staff had grown roots by the time he was ready to leave.

Of course, this all happened more than 1,500 years ago. St. Patrick is thought to have died in 493 at the age of 120. What really happened, and when, is open to some interpretation, guesswork and debate.

Wearing green for St. Patrick’s Day is a bit more recent development, but still interesting. The historic color used to represent St. Patrick was a sky blue. The color is actually known as St. Patrick blue. Green came into use with the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Supporters of the rebellion against British rule wore green to identify their feelings. So, while St. Patrick lived 15 centuries ago, wearing green for his day is just a bit over 200 years old.

As with a lot of holidays, the origins become a bit muddy over time and modern interpretations take over. This weekend, go catch a band playing Irish music and drink a Guinness or two. Wear a green shirt or hat. At least now you have some conversation starters in the pub about the real St. Patrick.

Just watch out for snakes.

Eric Douglas, of Pinch, is the author of “Return to Cayman,” “Heart of the Maya,” “Cayman Cowboys,” “River Town” and other novels. He is also a columnist for Scuba Diving Magazine and a former Charleston Newspapers Metro staff writer. For more information, visit or contact him at


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