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St. Patrick's Day 2024

Authored by Tommy Dolan
Published on 17th March, 2024 6 min read

St. Patrick's Day

Today (17/04/2024) is St. Patrick’s Day. The celebrations that occur on this day, across the globe, arguably constitute the most ubiquitous expression of Irish culture and identity—rivalled only, perhaps, by Arthur Matthew’s and Graham Linehan’s Father Ted and, more recently, Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls.

The powerhouse that is the Guinness marketing team has ensured that most people probably equate St. Patrick’s Day with pints of stout—and there can be no doubt that for many, many years this Christian feast day has been celebrated in Ireland (and beyond) by consuming a good deal of the produce of the St. James’ Gate Brewery. Whether Patrick himself would have been partial to a few pints, who can say? He is perhaps one of the most enigmatic figures in Irish history. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, scholarship on his life and work—the “Patrician field”—is vast.[1]

Of course, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations traditionally embrace the shamrock. It is said that Patrick used its three leaves as a means of teaching the Irish about the complex theological concept at the core of Christianity: the Holy Trinity. You tend to come across depictions of Patrick deploying the shamrock in his negotiations with Loigaire, who acceded to the High Kingship of Ireland in A.D. 428, about five years before Patrick’s estimated arrival in Ireland. Loigaire, it would seem, remained on the throne throughout Patrick’s ministry.

 Depiction of Patrick before High King Loigaire, Cathedral of Saint Patrick, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Christianity had been making inroads in Ireland prior to the coming of Patrick—there were undoubtedly Christian communities on the island, particularly around Leinster and Munster. It would seem that the faith had also gained a foothold in Loigaire’s own immediate, midland kingdom of Meath (he was both king of Meath and High King). Thus, he took the pivotal decision to allow Patrick to preach Christianity.

Yet Loigaire himself never converted to the creed: he held fast to the Druidic faith of his fathers. In his influential Life of St. Patrick and his Place in History (1905), J. B. Bury, a native of Co. Monaghan who in 1902 succeeded Lord Acton as Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, asserted that Loigaire’s decision to tolerate Christianity was not due to the intrinsic allure of that faith. According to Bury, the triumph of Christianity on the island and, for that matter, across western Europe and Russia, stemmed, rather, from a far more significant factor: it had been elevated to the state religion of the Roman Empire following Emperor Constantine’s conversion in A.D. 312. I may as well let Bury explain himself here: 

The soil of the island [Ireland] had never been trodden by Roman legions, but its ports were not sealed to the outer world, and from the first century the outer world meant practically the Roman world. The…[people] of Ireland in the fourth century must have conceived their island as lying just outside the threshold of a complex of land and sea, over which the power of Rome stretched to bounds almost inaccessible to their imagination…The adoption of this religion [Christianity] by the Imperial government in the fourth century must have had…a sensible effect in conferring prestige on Christianity beyond the boundaries of the Empire. It became inevitable that the favoured creed should henceforth be closely associated with the Empire…and regarded as the Roman religion. Hence that religion acquired, on political grounds, a higher claim…[Loigaire recognised] the great and growing strength of the religion which had overflowed from the Empire into his island…we may be certain that its close identification with the great Empire, the union of Christ with Ceaser, was an imposing argument.[2]

Bury’s thesis is compelling. Indeed, practically everyone was impressed by his subjection of the sources relating to Patrick’s life and legacy to new, scientific modes of historical analysis: to “methodical Quellenkritik”, as Bury put it, a rigorous form of source criticism pioneered in German historiography by the likes of Leopold von Ranke.[3] That said, scholars, particularly those with clerical backgrounds, have (understandably) taken issue with Bury’s conviction that the Irish, like their European counterparts, were largely unmoved by Christianity itself, but were instead largely in awe of the imperial power that backed it. 

J. B. Bury, former Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge and author of the influential Life of St. Patrick and his Place in History (1905). 

But to detail the numerous critiques of Bury’s vision of St. Patrick would lead us into those very old and very heated debates as to whether Ireland’s patron saint was a loyal Roman Catholic, wholly subservient to the Holy See, or whether he had effectively no relationship with the papacy, and in fact preached a stripped-down mode of Christianity that was more akin to Protestantism.[4] What is more, to open up this issue would likewise rope us into an even more lively and equally thorny area of historiographical debate: how many Patricks we there? One, or several?[5]

Perhaps we will delve into all of this next year. For now, BOA wishes everyone a happy St. Patrick’s Day. Slainte

[1] A good starting point is the classic essay by D. A. Binchy, “Patrick and his Biographers: Ancient and Modern,” Studia Hibernica, 2 (1962): 7–173.

[2] J. B. Bury, Life of St. Patrick and his Place in History (New York: Macmillan, 1905), 93–95 and 100. On Bury’s Life of St. Patrick and its intellectual influence, see my “Imprisonment, Islands, Imperialism: Patrician Dimensions of the Irish Imagination,” in Andrew Phemister and Thomas Dolan, ed. Journal of the History of European Ideas Special Edition: Religion and Irish Political Thought (2020): 1027–1046.

[3] Bury, Life of St. Patrick, vi.

[4] See, for example, the sermon, “Patrick's Mesage” (12 March 2000), delivered by Ian R. K. Paisley, the former head of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, available at (accessed 13 March 2024). Also see my "Standing Guard Over Ireland's Unity? Partition and St. Patrick," Creative Centenaries, 6 Oct. 2021, available at (last accessed 13 March 2024).

[5] If you wish to learn more about the theory of the “Two Patricks” it is worth consulting, in the first instance, Mario Esposito, “The Patrician Problem and a Possible Solution,” Irish Historical Studies, 10, 38 (Sept. 1956): 131–155.

Authored by Tommy Dolan

Tommy Dolan

Tommy Dolan is Senior Editor at British Online Archives. He gained his PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh in 2016. Between 2019 and 2022 he was a post-doctoral fellow on the Leverhulme-funded project 'Rethinking Civil Society: History, Theory, Critique' at the University of York. He then joined the metadata team at the University of York library. Tommy has published in the Historical Journal, the Journal of the History of European Ideas, and Studia Hibernica. His research focuses on the way in which readings of history have influenced political thought in Ireland, particularly with respect to the architects of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Tommy is currently also co-editor of Writing the Troubles.

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Notable Days


The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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