The man behind the party

As Dublin and New York vied for crowds and authenticity in two of the biggest St. Patrick's Day celebrations this week, they may have favored the myth and missed the message of the man.

The historic and legendary versions of the 5th-century bishop who laid the foundation for Christianity in Ireland present different pictures.

The historic St. Patrick was a humble cleric who fortified the Irish church despite the resentment of his contemporaries. Some scholars say he may even have been two people with the same name.

The mythic St. Patrick was created by revisionists after his death and includes allegories about snakes and shamrocks. This is the image that is sometimes leveraged by festival marketers and Irish nationalists.

But the different interpretations don't dim the mood of those who plan on having a good time.

Catherine Armstrong, a Belfast travel agent, handled dozens of bookings on a special St. Patrick's package to New York. "It's probably better than the celebrations over here," she says.

Terry Hill and a fellow Belfast taxi driver joined nearly 14,000 Irish travelers in New York. "When you are away from your country it makes you more proud," Mr. Hill says. "When you're sitting at home, you are doing nothing."

Hill watched local parades as a youth but expected Sunday's event in New York to outshine anything he has seen before.

John Dunleavy chairs the St. Patrick's Day celebration in New York, an event begun more than 230 years ago. Organizers take pride that their observance still involves the same simple components: a church service and parade. Mr. Dunleavy contends the religious emphasis is just one way the New York celebration keeps St. Patrick's message. "The Dublin march is more commercial," he says. "We have no commercial sponsorship."

The Dublin festival is a secular celebration meant to boost the city's cosmopolitan image. While it includes traditional elements such as a poetry reading from Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, others are decidedly un-Irish, such as a Togolese theater company and a Cuban dance troupe.

Dublin festival organizer Marie Claire Sweeney says, "Whether you're Irish, or just sometimes wish you were Irish, this party is for you."

While festival organizers spar over content, celebrants may be dismayed to learn that St. Patrick was not a native of Ireland. Scholars believe he was living in present-day Wales or Scotland when he was kidnapped as a teenager by pirates and sold into slavery in what is now Ireland .

In his "Confession," one of two surviving works, the future saint describes how he developed a deep humility and devotion to the church while forced to tend sheep in extreme weather.

Praying 100 times a day or more, St. Patrick also began having dreams and visions, which came to guide his life.

After dreaming of a ship waiting to take him home, he escaped back to the British mainland, where he received meager formal religious training. In another dream, he heard Irish voices imploring him to "come and walk once more amongst us" and returned to Ireland, where he had a profound influence serving as a bishop in the new church and baptizing thousands of pagans into the Christian faith.

THE man was no stranger to controversy. "Confession" addresses various accusations made against him, including greed and a lack of education. St. Patrick admits to spending too freely - the price of 15 slaves - to bribe local officials and kings to ensure the safety of his flock.

His other work, a letter to soldiers of the British chieftain Coroticus, essentially excommunicates the warlord for killing Christian converts during a raid on Ireland. Most other lore from St. Patrick's life is either myth or dubious conjecture.

Scholars say there is no evidence that he used the shamrock's three leaves to signify the mystery of the Trinity. They say the story of how he drove the snakes out of Ireland was probably an allegory about good triumphing over evil.

The Rev. Johnston McMaster, a professor of Celtic spirituality at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Belfast, believes St. Patrick would have been horrified by the commercialization around his name.

"He would have been quite surprised," Dr. McMaster says. "The person who comes across in the 'Confession' is not someone who enjoys a high profile."

The mood of the festivities might also give St. Patrick concern. McMaster worries the event has become too political, using St. Patrick to promote Irish nationalism. "There is a danger in that," he says, "not least back home in Ireland." St. Patrick lived at a time when there was no concept of an Irish nation.

The use of his image as a symbol of Irish unity by Northern Ireland's Catholic community has angered Protestants, who also lay claim to his legacy. The Belfast City Council scratched funding for a St. Patrick's Day parade because it lacked cross-community support.

In fact, St. Patrick developed inclusiveness and community among his followers. If the Dublin festival "is a sign that Ireland is becoming pluralistic, Patrick would have welcomed it," McMaster says.

St. Patrick probably would not begrudge a celebration in his name, but its overexuberance might not sit well with his sense of asceticism.

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