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Symbols and Legends about St Patrick

St Patrick uses shamrock in an illustrative parable

Legend dating to 1726, tributes St. Patrick with teaching the Irish about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity by showing people the shamrock, a three-leafed plant, using it to illustrate the Christian teaching of three persons in one God. For this reason, shamrocks are a central symbol for St Patrick’s Day.

St Patrick banishes all snakes from Ireland

The absence of snakes in Ireland gave rise to the legend that they had all been banished by St. Patrick, chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill. However, all evidence suggests that post-glacial Ireland never had any snakes. Ireland, after all, is surrounded by icy ocean waters much too cold to allow snakes to migrate from Britain or anywhere else. But since snakes often represent evil in literature, when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is perhaps symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland and brought in a new age.

St Patrick’s crosses

There are two main types of crosses associated with St. Patrick, the cross pattée and the saltire. The cross pattée is the more traditional association, while the association with the saltire dates from 1783 and the Order of St. Patrick.

The cross pattée has long been associated with St. Patrick, for reasons that are unclear. One possible reason is that bishops in religious heraldry often appear surmounted by a cross pattée. An example of this can be seen on the old crest of the Brothers of St. Patrick. As St. Patrick was the founding bishop of the Irish church, the symbol may have become associated with him. St. Patrick is traditionally portrayed in the vestments of a bishop, his garments are often decorated with a cross pattée. The cross pattée retains its link to St. Patrick to the present day. For example, it appears on the coat of arms of both the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Armagh and the Church of Ireland Archdiocese of Armagh. This is on account of St. Patrick being regarded as the first bishop of the Diocese of Armagh. It is also used by Down District Council which has its headquarters in Downpatrick, the reputed burial place at St. Patrick.

St Patrick’s Saltire is a red saltire on a white field. It is used in the emblem of the Order of St Patrick, established in 1783, and after the Acts of Union 1800 it was combined with the St George’s Cross of England and the St Andrew’s Cross of Scotland to form the Union Flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. A saltire was intermittently used as a symbol of Ireland from the seventeenth century, but without reference to St Patrick.

Saint Patrick’s Bell

The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin holds a bell first mentioned, according to the Annals of Ulster, in the Book of Cuanu in the year 552. The bell was part of a collection of “relics of Patrick” removed from his tomb sixty years after his death by Colum Cille. The bell is one of three relics of which the other two are described as Patrick’s goblet and “The Angels Gospel”. Colum Cille is described to have been under the direction of an “Angel” for whom he sent the goblet to Down, the bell to Armagh, and kept possession of the Angel’s Gospel for himself.