The Pagan Origins of St. Patrick’s Day

"Patrick casting down cromm cruach and the twelve smaller idols" 1911 (source: Wikimedia COmmons)

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Let me start by saying this is not an article about Saint Patrick.

I’ve said enough about the guy (re: my book).

Instead, this is an article about:

  • the spring equinox,
  • the Catholic church,
  • a cockamamie theory linking the leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Nuada of the Silver Hand, to the Iranian prophet Zoroaster,
  • and a megalithic cairn in County Meath that has one of those solar chambers with a backstone that gets bathed in sunlight on the equinoxes—yeah, awesome, I know.

But let’s start with the facts. And only the facts.

Pssst. You can watch a video adaptation of this article right here:

Why Do We Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th?

Because that’s when the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland observe it.

It was added to the Catholic Church’s official liturgical calendar in the 1600s, thanks largely to the influence of the Irish-born Franciscan friar and historian Luke Wadding

And while the 17th of March was pegged as the day for celebrating the apostle of Ireland, the Church does occasionally move the date (like it did in 1940 and 2008 when St. Patrick’s Day fell during Holy Week and was thus shifted to April 3rd and March 15th respectively). 

So yeah, bottom line: the Church sets the date of St. Patrick’s Day.

But why’d they make the 17th of March the default date?

Because as early as the ninth and tenth centuries, there were Catholics in Europe (mostly Irish) who celebrated the feast day of St. Patrick—before it got on the universal calendar and went “worldwide.”

Which then begs the question…

Why did those very first Irish revelers celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th?

Because according to popular history, that’s when St. Patrick died. March 17th, 461 CE.

Although some people claim he actually died in 493 CE. Granted that would have made him more than a century old.

Regardless, the accepted story is that Patrick died on the 17th of March in the aptly named town of Downpatrick in County Down, and his followers at the time remembered that date and celebrated it henceforth as Patrick’s feast day.

“St Patrick’s grave? St Patrick died in 461 and his ‘remains’ are said to have been moved to Downpatrick in 700. This stone reputedly marks the site of his grave. After more than 1300 years it is hard to be certain…” (source:

Only we don’t know (and most likely will never know) with any certainty on which day Saint Patrick actually kicked the bucket.

That’s because Patrick himself—and his letters, more specifically—are the primary source materials historians have used to reconstruct his life.

And unfortunately, for all of his good deeds, Patrick did not jot down the date of his own death, which, I mean, was just not very considerate.

Perhaps even more unfortunately, for those of you keen on seeking the truth, later biographers and hagiographers would give the saint a retroactive glow up—turning him into a sort of superpowered wizard who scared away snakes and defeated druids with a magical staff—making it hard to distinguish Saint Patrick fact from Saint Patrick fiction.

Which leads us to…

Was St. Patrick’s Day Pegged to the Spring Equinox?

Given the unreliable accounting of his life’s story, we don’t know for sure that Saint Patrick died on March 17th.

But what we do know for sure is that the 17th of March is conspicuously close to the Northern Hemisphere’s spring or vernal equinox, which in any given year will fall on the 19th, 20th, or 21st day of March.

Derived from the Latin for “equal night,” the equinox refers to a time when sunlight and darkness occur in equal measure in a single day, which is to say it is a time when the Earth’s northern and southern hemispheres receive equal amounts of sunlight, which is to say it is a time when Earth’s equator passes through the geometric center of the sun’s disk.

Look, there are lots of ways to say it.

And regardless of how they thought of it, our ancestors have been celebrating the equinoxes, both vernal and autumnal, for thousands of years.

“Illumination of Earth by the Sun on the day of an equinox” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

For many cultures, the spring equinox in particular marks not only the changing of the season but also the beginning of a new year. 

Case in point: the ancient Babylonians had their calendar start on the first full moon after the spring equinox. 

And the ancient Persians famously celebrated Nowruz—an equinoctial new year festival that is still celebrated to this day (some 3,000+ years later) in Iran and surrounding countries. It begins on the evening of March 20th and ends on the evening of the 21st. 

Which is interesting because the ancient Goidelic- or Gaelic-speaking Celts measured their days evening to evening, which means that they would have observed the equinox over a similar stretch of time. 

Now, not to jump to conclusions…

Just kidding! Let’s jump to conclusions.

Maybe there was some cultural connective tissue between the ancient Persians, practitioners of Zoroastrianism, and the ancient Irish, practitioners of Celtic paganism. 

After all, the Persian language, a.k.a. Farsi, and the Irish language are both ultimately derived from the same proto-language—proto-Indo-European.

Turns out I’m not even close to being the first person to search for (tenuous-at-best) parallels between the ancient Persians and the ancient Irish.

Is Nuada of the Silver Hand Actually the Persian Prophet Zoroaster?

This is the controversial theory of a one Mr. Charles Vallancey. Or General Charles Vallancey, I should say. He was a British military surveyor who went to Ireland sometime in the 1760s and by all accounts fell in love with the place, making it his adoptive home.

Vallancey certainly did a lot of good in helping to preserve Irish folklore and culture. For example, he painstakingly created diagrams of Irish artifacts and wrote about his first-hand observations of Irish religious and celebratory customs.

But Vallancey’s reputation took a hit when he began making, uh, what do you call them…

Oh, right: Wild, unsubstantiated claims. 

One of his more infamous being that the ruler of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the Irish gods), Nuada Airgetlam, of the Silver Hand, or Silver Arm, whom I talked about at length—arm’s length (I’m so sorry)—in my article/video on the Irish mythology behind the Banshees of Inisherin, was the same person as Zoroaster, a.k.a. Zarathustra, the Iranian prophet and religious reformer who is regarded as the spiritual founder of Zoroastrianism.

To quote Vallancey’s 1786 book, A Vindication of the Ancient History of Ireland:

“[I]n ancient Persia, so, in ancient Ireland, there were two sects of fire worshippers ; one, that lighted the fires on the tops of mountains and hills, and others in towers ; an innovation said to be brought about by Mogh Nuadhat, or the Magus of the new law, otherwise called Airgiod-lamh, or golden hand, who was the Zerdost or gold hand of the Persians, who is said to have lost his life by a Touranian Scythian, in a tumult raised by this innovation ; so Mogh Nuadhat had his hand cut off in the struggle, but one of the Tuatha-dadan colony, or Chaldaean magi, supplied the loss with a silver or golden hand.”

Huge if true.

And bringing this back to the spring equinox, Zoroaster was one of history’s biggest spring equinox cheerleaders.

Wait did you just call the founder of one of if not the world’s oldest religions a cheerleader?

Yeah but I didn’t mean it like that.

To quote Mary Boyce, scholar of Iranian languages:

“It seems a reasonable surmise that Nowruz, the holiest of [the Zoroastrian festivals], with deep doctrinal significance, was founded by Zoroaster himself.”

source: Encyclopædia Iranica

But even if Zoroaster didn’t found Nowruz, the 11th-century Persian historian Gardizi attests to the fact that Zoroaster highly emphasized the celebration of Nowruz and its fall counterpart, Mehrgan.

Now only if Nuada of the Silver Hand had any connection whatsoever to the equinoxes in the Irish myths, there might be an interesting point to make here. 

But he doesn’t, so there isn’t.

And that’s because the Celts of ancient Ireland didn’t really care too much about equinoxes—or solstices for that matter.

Sure, they knew about them and likely celebrated them, but the Celts were much more concerned with the days that fell between the equinoxes and solstices; so-called cross quarter days.

That’s when the four major festivals of the Celts took place.

There was Samhain, the Celtic New Year, which began on the evening of October 31st, falling between the fall equinox and the winter solstice; Imbolc, which began on the evening of February 1st, falling between the winter solstice and the spring equinox; then there’s Beltane on May 1st between the spring equinox and summer solstice; and finally Lughnasa on August 1st between the summer solstice and fall equinox.

But even though the Celts weren’t the biggest equinox fans, that doesn’t mean other, earlier Irish pagans didn’t hold the equinoxes in higher esteem.

The Loughcrew Equinox: How the Pre-Celtic Irish Used a Megalith to Mark an Important Astronomical Moment

The Celts weren’t the first humans to settle in Ireland.

Most of you probably knew that already but it always bears repeating.

Indeed the arrival of Ireland’s first inhabitants dates back to at least 7,000 or 8,000 BCE, while more recent discoveries may push that date back even further—to 10,500 or even 31,000 BCE.

But I don’t need to go back that far to make my point:

The proto-Celtic language and thus the Celts, who were a linguistic group and not a continuous lineage of people, only came into existence in 1300 BCE

Or perhaps as far back as 3000 BCE, if British archaeologist Barry Cunliffe’s “Celtic from the West” theory is to be believed.

No matter which way you slice it, there were people in Ireland for thousands of years before the arrival of the Celts and they built some impressive megalithic monuments.

So impressive that the Celts would map their own mythology onto the tumuli- and cairn-dotted Irish landscape, reimagining the island’s mighty mounds as the homes of the gods.

Who later became known as the fairies or aes sídhe—people of the hills.

Back to the megaliths.

As noted by journalist Frank McNally, writing for the Irish Times:

Five thousand years before television, our ancestors used to pass their nights by watching the sky. They didn’t just dance with the stars, they studied them too. And by way of recording highlights, they built great stone monuments all over Ireland, doubling as burial chambers, carefully aligned with the main celestial events.

At least one of these, on the western fringes of  County Meath, marks the spring and autumn equinoxes.

This is Cairn T, also known as Carn Bán or the Hag’s Cairn, of the Loughcrew Megalithic Complex, which dates to 3200 BCE.

On the spring and fall equinoxes, the morning sun illuminates the cairn’s passage and chamber, bathing the chamber’s backstone (which is adorned with solar symbols) in golden sunlight for nearly an hour.

“Loughcrew Passage Tomb cairn T, The wall on the left is pitted with so-called ‘cup marks’. When the tomb was opened, a large number of chalk balls were found at the base of this stone. These balls fitted the stone precisely; they may represent the stars in the sky.” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

So yeah. The spring equinox? Clearly important to the pre-Celtic Irish.

Important enough perhaps that the Irish Celts continued to celebrate it and, in the wake of Christianization, the Church felt it necessary to peg the feast day of Saint Patrick to it.

A common maneuver for the Church, actually, which put St. Brigid’s Day on the same date as Imblolc and which put All Saints’ Day (a.k.a. All Hallows’ Day) on the same date as Samhain and Lammas Day on the same date as Lughnasa.

It was sort of their thing.

To quote

The early Christian church in Ireland incorporated pre-christian spirituality and festivals into the ‘new religion’, it is conceivable that the Spring Equinox festival became christianised and rebranded as Saint Patrick’s day.

The Spring Equinox is the beginning of the ‘light’ half of the year where the sun is strongest and the days are longer than the nights. Saint Patrick brought the ‘light’ of a different sun, the son of God to Ireland, the adaptable Irish Celts may have simply rebranded the Spring Equinox festival to Saint Patrick’s Feast day.

Want to learn more controversial St. Patrick’s facts?

Saint Patrick in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 4)

Separate man from myth, fact from folklore, in this small but mighty pocket guide dedicated to uncovering lesser-known facts about Ireland’s most beloved patron saint. Armed with answers to these 20 tantalizing questions, you’ll be the smartest reveler in the room at your next Saint Patrick’s Day party. Learn more…

P.S. More of an audio-visual learner?

Check out the IrishMyths YouTube channel:

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