St. Patrick, the primary patron saint of Ireland, remains one of its most prolific national icons today. St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain in approximately 387 AD, and is the missionary accredited with converting Ireland to Christianity.
Born into a religious family in Scotland, Patrick was greatly influenced in his early life by his deacon father and priest grandfather. At the age of sixteen, a young Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland. Forced to work as a shepherd, he often suffered from hunger and extremely cold conditions. Despite this, he prayed daily and his faith in God grew. After six years, Patrick heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home, and that his ship was ready. Heeding this voice, he escaped his master and fled Ireland.
A few years after returning home, Patrick recounted having had another vision, in which he received a letter entitled “The Voice of the Irish.” As he read the letter he heard the Irish people calling to him in a united voice, begging him to return. He interpreted this dream as a call to do mission work in pagan Ireland.
He returned to the island as a priest, preaching and converting for 40 years. Patrick was initially met with resistance, writing that he and his companions were seized and carried off as captives twelve times, and that on one occasion, he was chained and sentenced to death. Nevertheless, he and his disciples persevered.
Throughout his missionary work, St. Patrick continued to promote the conversion of Ireland to Christianity by electing Church officials, creating councils, founding monasteries, and organizing Ireland into dioceses. In 431, Patrick was appointed bishop of Ireland, and the island is believed to have been officially converted to Christianity in 432.
Slavery in the Medieval Period
In the Early Medieval Period, the era spanning the five hundred years from the fifth to the tenth centuries in Europe, slavery was a habitual and continuous practice. Invasions and war characterized this chaotic time, and it was customary for prisoners of war or those caught in raids to be taken captive and enslaved. Celtic Ireland was no exception, and Dublin was a hub for the slave trade. Because no legal texts regarding Irish slavery in these centuries survive, scholars turn to later 11th century Gaelic manuscripts called the Brehon Laws for insight.
According to the Brehon Laws, the hierarchical Gaelic society in Ireland included three groups below the lowest of free men who were considered “unfree.” These unfree were denied almost every right afforded to tribesmen, including the right to bear arms and the right to leave tribal territory. The lowest of these groups known as fuidhir (pronounced fwi-thee-er), and included those captured in war or raids. These slaves were bound forever in service and were forbidden from receiving inheritance or owning land. St. Patrick would have most certainly been considered a fuidhir during the period of his enslavement.
The Catholic Church actively sought to reduce the practice of slavery in their missionary work, and St. Patrick himself was a vocal advocate against the practice. Despite his efforts, Ireland remained one of the last areas of Christian European to abolish the institution.
St. Patrick’s Day
Although disputed by scholars, most documents state that St. Patrick passed on March 17, 460. The day of his death is celebrated in a plethora of countries as St. Patrick’s Day, and commemorates both the good deeds of the saint and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. Today, St. Patrick’s Day is observed by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion (especially the Church of Ireland), the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Lutheran Church. Although originally celebrated as an official feast day as early as the tenth century, St. Patrick’s Day has gradually become a commemoration of Irish culture in general. It is now considered a public holiday in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Montserrat, Labrador, and Newfoundland. St. Patrick’s Day is also celebrated by Irish communities worldwide in countries including Great Britain, Canada, the United States, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand.
St. Patrick’s Day & Crime
St. Patrick’s Day festivities worldwide have resulted in various violent and non-violent crimes. Of historical significance is the bloody Chicago 1926 gang shooting known as the St. Patrick’s Day Massacre. On March 16, Alphonse “Scarface” Lambert attempted to wipe out rival crime lord Jean Arnaud and his men at a St. Patrick’s Day party thrown by Arnaud’s sister-in-law. The attack itself was no longer than ten minutes, but left no survivors.
St. Patrick’s Day has been associated with alcohol consumption from its early years, as it was one of the few days where the Lenten season restrictions on drinking were lifted. In modern times the holiday has become chiefly characterized by excessive drinking. In fact, it has become one of the most difficult and dangerous days of the year for law enforcement and communities nationwide. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, St. Patrick’s Day is one of the two days of the year with the highest rate of DUI arrests. An estimated 10% increase in DUI violations is common during the week surrounding St. Patrick’s Day. This percentage spikes when the holiday falls on a weekend, reaching a staggering 25%.Research compiled by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2009 demonstrates that on St. Patrick’s Day of that year 37% of drivers involved in a fatal crash had a blood alcohol level of .08 or above. The report also states that 47 out of 103 people were killed in a crash that involved drunk driving.
More recently, the widely attended St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Hoboken, New Jersey was canceled in 2012 in response to the alarmingly high crime rates the year before. In 2011, 34 people were arrested and 166 people were admitted to the hospital. Two reports of sexual assault were also filed, as well as 555 citations for minor infractions such as public intoxication and urination. Also in 2012, a crowd in Baltimore, Maryland, beat, robbed, and stripped an intoxicated tourist of his clothing in the street. Video of the crime was uploaded online and quickly went viral. Although technically taking place in the early hours of March 18, this highly publicized crime gained the title “The St. Patrick’s Day Beating.”
Infamous Irish Crimes & Criminals
Ireland has had its fair share of prolific criminals and dangerous gang members. One of the bloodiest dissident groups in Irish history is known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary revolutionary organization. The original IRA was formed in 1919 during the Irish War of Independence, and was responsible for an extensive guerrilla campaign against British rule in Ireland throughout the war. The signing of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which ended the war and established Ireland as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, caused a rift within the IRA. Those who opposed the treaty in favor of a fully-independent Irish republic continued to use the name IRA, and fought against their pro-treaty former companions in a civil war lasting from 1922 to 1923. Although the anti-treaty IRA was eventually defeated, a vocal minority continued to clash against British and Irish Free State Forces.
From 1969 through 1997, the IRA fractured into several organizations, all called the IRA. The association of the IRA with terrorism comes from one of these splinter groups, generally known as the Provisional IRA. This organization hoped that by inflicting enough casualties on troops, public opinion would compel British forces to withdraw from the region. Traditional IRA activities have included assassinations, bombings, arms and drug trafficking, kidnappings, extortion, and robberies. It is believed to have been funded partially by U.S. sympathizers, as well as countries such as Libya and terrorist organizations including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Research suggests that the Provisional IRA was responsible for the deaths of as many as 1,824 people during The Troubles (1960s-1990s) a time of significant conflict in Northern Ireland between several factions. This figure represents 48.4% of the total fatalities in the conflict. Notable attacks include the 1972 Bloody Friday bombings in Belfast, during which 22 bombs exploded, killing nine people and injuring 130. In 1979, the group claimed responsibility for the assassination of Queen Elizabeth II’s uncle and three of his companions. Almost two decades later in 1998, an IRA car bombing claimed the lives of 29 in Northern Ireland. In July 2005, the head council of the Provisional IRA announced an end to its armed campaign, and shortly afterwards began to disband. Two small groups split from the Provisional IRA and continue to engage in paramilitary activity.
Irish Diaspora Crime in the U.S.
As the second largest European ancestry group in the United States, Irish-Americans make up almost 12% of the total population. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 30.5 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, amounting to almost five times the population of Ireland and Northern Ireland combined. Irish-American groups have helped shape American history since its colonization, with over 10 U.S. presidents claiming Irish ancestry.
Like other struggling immigrant communities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Irish-Americans in major cities responded to harsh economic conditions and political marginalization by forming their own organized crime syndicates. The Irish Mob is one of the oldest of these groups in the United States, and has participated in criminal activities including racketeering, murder, hijacking, and drug trafficking since the early nineteenth century. Among history’s prominent Irish-American mobsters is Chicago gang leader George “Bugs” Moran. Moran was Al Capone’s lifelong rival, and was known for his involvement in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the supposed popularization of the “drive-by shooting.” Also prominent was underworld figure Owney “The Killer” Madden, a leading Prohibition bootlegger and owner of the legendary speakeasy The Cotton Club.
For more about the history of American organized crime, visit the Museum’s Mob Gallery, which contains objects related to some of the United States’ most infamous mobsters, as well as props and costumes from popular films such as Scarface and Gangs of New York.