March 17, 2010

St. Patrick vs. the Leprechauns

Fact and fiction about the patron saint of Ireland and the day his life is celebrated

By Helene Ragovin

Don’t ask Barbara Hillers about leprechauns. 

Yes, she is a scholar of Celtic languages and literatures, educated in both Dublin and Belfast, as well as at Harvard. And yes, she is teaching an Experimental College course this semester on the folklore of Ireland. And it is St. Patrick’s Day, the season when images of the emerald-clad creatures seem to bedeck every storefront and advertisement. 

“The Dublin St. Patrick’s Day parade has become every bit as big and noisy and exuberant as what we get to see here on St. Patrick’s Day,” says Barbara Hillers. Photo: Slow Images/Getty Images

But, says Hillers, the connection between Ireland’s patron saint and the little guy on the Lucky Charms box is tenuous at best—at least from a folklorist’s perspective. 

Tufts Journal talked with Hillers about the fact and fiction behind the day that lets everybody be Irish, at least for a little while. 

Tufts Journal: So, what’s up with the leprechauns? 

Barbara Hillers: I’m not a leprechaun expert [laughs]—although I have colleagues who are and who have published excellent work. I have really nothing against leprechauns personally, but one might say they are a little over-rated in our modern perception of Irish folk culture: they just don’t play a central role in Irish folk tradition. 

 I think what we’re seeing in the American observance of St. Patrick’s Day might be most appropriately classified as a reinvention of tradition. Although there certainly is evidence in the Irish rural folk tradition of some of the things we might associate with St. Patrick’s Day in America, such as people getting together, the display of the color green, a good bit of drinking going on—there’s definite precedent for that!—I personally have never come across any traditional association of St. Patrick with leprechauns in my work as a folklorist. That is probably a relatively modern invention, or rather a fusion—an attempt to bring together ethnic emblems. 

So what is traditionally associated with St. Patrick’s Day? 

There is evidence for wearing of the color green on St. Patrick’s Day, or of some emblem in honor of the saint. It is impossible to say how far back this goes, but it is mentioned in literary sources as early as the 17th century, and at the turn of the 19th century, this was widely done in rural communities. Boys and men would put shamrocks on their caps and the girls would wear green ribbons, or colorful home-made crosses, made of paper and bits of ribbon, on their dresses. And they would go to the pub, and have what they called “St. Patrick’s Cup”—Pota Phádraig—a drink of whisky.  

How does the observance of St. Patrick’s Day differ between Ireland and America? 

I used to think that the St. Patrick’s Day observance, as we know it here, is not well-rooted in Ireland. But within the 20th century, the Dublin St. Patrick’s Day parade has become every bit as big and noisy and exuberant, I would say, as what we get to see here on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s become a big deal in Dublin.  

What are some of the Irish associations with St. Patrick’s Day that we may not be familiar with in the U.S.? 

It’s clearly associated with spring. In Ireland, of course, March is very much spring—in fact, the middle of spring. Spring in Ireland begins with St. Brigid’s Day, the first of February, which is incidentally a far more important holiday in terms of Irish folk culture. That’s the beginning of the agricultural year, when farmers start plowing the ground, sowing seed—no more frost would be expected after that day.  

In folklore, then, St. Patrick is often paired with St. Brigid in a kind of friendly rivalry. For instance, there are little rhymes and sayings about how Patrick ups the ante on Brigid, especially with regard to the weather, how Brigid warms up the water by putting her little toe in the water, while Patrick puts his whole foot in. It’s interesting, because this rivalry actually reflects the historical, ecclesiastical tradition in some sense. We have versions of the Life of St. Patrick in Latin, and later in Irish, and those lives tend to make a strong rhetorical case for the supremacy of St. Patrick over other saints, including St. Brigid, so what we seem to have reflected in folklore may be a very ancient ecclesiastical tradition. 

What about the real St. Patrick? 

St. Patrick was not the first missionary to Ireland. We know of the mission of Palladius, who was sent in 431 as a bishop to the “Irish believing in Christ.” So there were already Christian communities large enough to warrant having a bishop sent out to them. Clearly, Patrick was the most successful, and the Irish ecclesiastics wanted to enhance his reputation, so they eliminated any rival missionaries or minimized their roles.  

Traditionally, 432 is given as the date St. Patrick came to Ireland. And, his death date is 493—which would make his lifespan rather miraculously long, assuming he came to Ireland as a grown man, as his writings suggest. So this was clearly a problem. Modern scholarship has attempted to explain it by postulating two Patricks: the early Palladius (also, according to some sources, called Patricius), and the historical Patrick, who may have arrived around 460.  

What makes this particular saint so fascinating is that he comes from a place and time that we know very, very little about, in terms of contemporary records. But we have two authentic works that can be securely attributed to him: one of them is his Confession and the other is a letter to a fellow Roman Briton. So we have this, the immediacy of an autobiographical record, which speaks to us from this very ‘dark’ period. 

This account of his mission is in his own words. He comes across very strongly as not necessarily likeable, but very individualistic and strong headed, a devout person who in the way he set about missionizing Ireland clearly invented his own strategies.

How do you approach your Ex College class? 

The course is indebted to literary and anthropological approaches; we take texts from oral literature and examine them from a range of critical perspectives. It’s very important to us, in our world of hyper-literacy, to encounter these documents from a preliterate society. It’s a literature that gets us in touch with people leading a very different type of life, and because we study their stories, we see the world through their eyes. The course is very participatory, and students do a lot of independent research on individual storytellers. I want students to be able to put themselves in the storytellers’ shoes. And I want them to appreciate that folklore is a living thing, that it’s all around us and that we all use it in a variety of ways. 

I have students who come because they want to explore their Irish heritage. I think they learn about it indirectly. I don’t focus on Irish American folklore as such. It’s a very legitimate field, but it’s not my field. Instead, I give them these texts, which enable them to connect to a traditional culture—a culture very similar to the culture the Irish immigrants left behind—and to see the world through the eyes of the Irish storytellers. 

You lived and studied in Northern Ireland, where both St. Patrick’s Day and the 12th of July—the Protestant commemoration of the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne—have distinctly political overtones related to the Catholic-Protestant divide.  

Presumably, we are moving towards a world where both St. Patrick’s Day and the 12th of July can be recognized and celebrated in Northern Ireland, even though each community might feel deeply ambiguous about the other community’s holiday. But I think we are still far from the day when both King Billy on his white horse and St. Patrick will simply be viewed as symbols of a good time to be had by everybody. Maybe one day they will. 

Helene Ragovin can be reached at

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