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St. Patrick's Day: Did Patrick become Christian for the tax breaks?

Despite persistent myths, St. Patrick's Day recalls a man who didn't alone convert the Irish, didn't use a shamrock to teach the Trinity, and didn't chase out the snakes. It recalls a man who, simply, loved the Irish.

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Along with the myth that Patrick alone brought the Bible to the pagan Druids is that he chased out Ireland’s snakes.

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Ireland never had snakes

But Ireland – along with New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarcticanever had snakes aside from in zoos and as pets. “So far, no serpent has successfully migrated across the open ocean to a new terrestrial home,” according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

If the snakes only symbolize paganism, which St. Patrick is also credited for banishing, then the legend is still wrong, because it overlooks missionaries such as Palladius. The scholar T. F. O’Rahilly, in his 1942 lecture “The Two Patricks,” proposed that the man known as St. Patrick is actually a blend of Palladius and Patrick.

“There were a number of others before Patrick,” says Ms. McCaffrey, the Irish scholar. “Patrick was not alone and he was not the first. He was not the converter of the Irish.”

March 17 is believed to be Patrick's death date in 460 AD, though even this is a guestimate.

McCaffrey, a former professor of Irish history and Irish literature at Johns Hopkins University, spent five years working on the PBS special “In Search of Ancient Ireland” and the resulting book, “In Search of Ireland’s Hero’s.” During her research, she found that because of the two letters that Patrick left behind, church officials developed a cult of personality around him, much of it untrue.

Such myths include that he used the shamrock to teach the concept of a trinity.

But McCaffrey says St. Patrick was still exceptional because of his love for the Irish.

"In the letters, his passion and his commitment to his people is quite striking," she says. "...He was living with pagans, yet he was Christian, and he found them to be a gentle, kind people, despite the fact they had enslaved him."

IN PHOTOS: St. Patrick's Day parades around the world

Editors Note: This article was amended to make the following corrections: The Roman Catholic Church does recognize Patrick as a saint, and it was his father – not himself – that possibly became a Christian for the tax benefits, according to The History Channel.

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