Art & Culture

The myths of St. Patrick

Many parts of the story of the Irish saint have been questioned over the years.
Corned beef and cabbage being served at Paines restaurant. Photo Leila Sadeghian

Though the Irish influence in San Benito County doesn’t compare to that of Boston, Baltimore or New York, it has a place in local history. Notably, the Breen Family, who came by way of the ill-fated Donner Party, settled in San Juan Bautista. 

The myths, legends and traditions Irish immigrants brought with them to East Coast cities have spread to the West Coast and on March 17 many San Benito County residents will lift a pint of Guinness or a shot of Jameson’s and click glasses with a merry “Slaintѐ.” 

But the most-noted Irish story of all—St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland—is by now mostly myth. 


Myth: St. Patrick was Irish.

According to Patrick was born in what is now England, Scotland or Wales, to a Christian deacon and his wife around the year 390. It is thought that at age 16 he was enslaved by Irish raiders, transported to Ireland and held captive for six years. Patrick later fled to England, where he received religious training before returning to Ireland to serve as a missionary.

His birthplace doesn’t mean he was British. During his lifetime Britain was occupied by the Romans and it is unknown if his family were Celts or Romans. 

Myth: St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland.

In 431, before Patrick began preaching in Ireland, Pope Celestine reportedly sent a bishop known as Palladius “to the Irish believing in Christ,” indicating some inhabitants of Ireland had already converted. 

Myth: St. Patrick banished snakes from Ireland.

Legend has it that Patrick stood on an Irish hillside and delivered a sermon that drove the island’s snakes into the sea. Ireland, however, was already snake-free. 

Water has surrounded Ireland since the end of the last glacial period, preventing snakes from gaining access. Before that, it was blanketed in ice and too cold for these cold-blooded reptiles.

Scholars believe the snake story is an allegory for St. Patrick’s eradication of pagan ideology.

Myth: Popular St. Patrick’s Day festivities have their roots in Ireland.

Until the 1700s, St. Patrick’s Day was a Roman Catholic feast only observed in Ireland. The faithful spent the day in quiet prayer at church or at home. That began to change when Irish immigrants living in the United States began organizing parades and other events on March 17 as a show of pride. For many people around the world, St. Patrick’s Day has evolved into a secular ode to the Irish, characterized by parties, music and food.

Myth: Corned beef is a classic St. Patrick’s Day dish.

On St. Patrick’s Day, many people cook up a pot of corned beef and cabbage. In Ireland, however, a type of bacon similar to ham is the customary meat for the day.

In the late 19th century, Irish immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side supposedly substituted corned beef, which they bought from their Jewish neighbors, in order to save money.

Myth: St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Irish about the Holy Trinity.

According to, there is no documentation of using the shamrock in any of Patrick’s writings, and it does not enter into the story until the eighteenth century. 

Though it’s been said he used the three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the concept of three gods in one, the Irish had several triple deities at the time, including the Triple Goddess and the Morrigan.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona duit (Happy St. Patrick’s Day).


 We need your help. Support local, nonprofit news! BenitoLink is a nonprofit news website that reports on San Benito County. Our team is committed to this community and providing essential, accurate information to our fellow residents. It is expensive to produce local news and community support is what keeps the news flowing. Please consider supporting BenitoLink, San Benito County’s public service, nonprofit news.

Carmel de Bertaut

Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College. She reports on science and the environment, arts and human interest pieces. Carmel has worked in the ecological and communication fields and is an avid creative writer and hiker. She has been reporting for BenitoLink since May, 2018 and covers Science and the Environment and Arts and Culture.