Like many holidays, St. Patrick’s Day is associated with both historical truths and fanciful mythology. These St. Patrick’s Day postcards from my collection, which are all about a century old, illustrate some of those facts and myths.
First, there was indeed a Catholic priest named Patrick. But he wasn’t Irish; he was English. Born into an aristocratic family about 390 A.D., he was abducted as a teenager and taken to Ireland, where he lived as a slave for seven years before escaping and returning home. It was there that he received a divine call to return to Ireland and convert the Irish to Christianity. Traditional stories claimed that Patrick “drove the snakes out of Ireland,” but climatic conditions mean that there were never any snakes of the reptilian variety in Ireland to drive out. This legend is now considered a metaphor for Patrick’s evangelizing and driving the Old Religion from the island. If you look closely at the postcard on the left below, you’ll see a snake under Patrick’s boot.
Another legend surrounds the association between St. Patrick and the shamrock. Some claim that the priest used the plants’ thee-part leaves to represent the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit when he was attempting to explain Christianity; modern researchers think this story was perpetuated by monks long after Patrick’s death. Nevertheless, the shamrock is still strongly associated with Ireland (the plant is its national flower) and with St. Patrick’s Day in particular.
The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day as something more than an ordinary saint’s day, with perhaps a special dinner, originated not in Ireland but in America, among Irish-Americans. Postcards depicting “hands across the sea” and displaying emblems from both cultures were common. The card below features flags representing the United States and Ireland—but the “Irish” flag shown is that of the Irish Catholic republican nationalists and not the official tricolor Irish national flag in use today. The shamrock appears as the emblem of the Irish, while goldenrod represents the United States. (The goldenrod was once in contention for our country’s official flower, but that honor was given to the rose in 1986.)
Another symbol of good luck that appears on old St. Patrick’s Day postcards is the pig. This tradition comes from Teutonic cultures and is maintained in modern Germany and Austria, as well as England and Ireland, but Americans in general have not embraced it.
But we do still enjoy these old St. Patrick’s Day postcards, which are a celebration of Irish-American culture, if not the saint for whom the day is named.