It is very fitting that we Alabamians celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this week because a good many of us can trace our ancestry back to Ireland. The majority of Alabama’s early settlers were of Scotch Irish descent and a good many of us are still here today.

My maternal ancestors settled in southeast Alabama in the 1840’s. Their roots are easily traced back to Ireland. I had heard this from aging relatives that they came to Alabama from the Carolinas and indeed their birth and genealogy tables bear this out. They simply said the Carolinas because I believe that at the time of their migration there was no distinction between North and South Carolina. Although I believe most of our ancestors came from what is now North Carolina.

For most of my life I just assumed my ancestors had come straight to the Carolinas from Ireland. Later in life I read more about the Scotch Irish and my mother’s ancestors and discovered that Carolina was their second home. Most of the Scotch Irish who were the early settlers of Alabama were first inhabitants of Pennsylvania. They moved first to the Carolinas and then to Alabama.

One of the most tragic and poignant scenes of the harsh war between the states was the fact that many of the early poor Scotch Irish settlers were forced into the Civil War with very little knowledge of why they were fighting a war. The sad tragedy is that many of them were related but wound up on different sides of the war. Their cousins who had just moved to the Carolinas were southerners and were pitted against their blood relatives who were northerners from Pennsylvania. They were forced to fight and kill each other for a cause that neither understood nor cared about and that did not affect them. Their fathers had simply fled their native land because of a potato famine with hopes for a better life in America.

As we wear the green this week and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day you may wonder who is this St. Patrick we commemorate every March. In addition, what parts of the St. Patrick legend are fact and which are fiction. The facts are St. Patrick was born in Britain around 387 A.D. His father and grandfather were both clergymen like Patrick. When he was about 16 years old he was captured by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family.

During the time of his captivity Patrick experienced a spiritual awakening and developed a compassion for the lost souls around him. He later returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary and had great success converting the mostly pagan population to Christianity. There are recorded accounts of Patrick baptizing thousands of people. He ordained priests in a host of communities to minister to his flock of believers. Some historians think he died between 460 and 493 A.D. presumably on March 17.

Patrick was never officially canonized by a pope but was given sainthood status by the Irish church sometime around the seventh century. Some of the myths that surround St. Patrick are what makes the legendary character so colorful. One says that he delivered a compelling hilltop sermon so passionately that all the snakes in Ireland were driven off the island. It is a fact that there are no snakes in Ireland.

Legend also credits St. Patrick with teaching the Irish people about the trinity, using shamrocks or a three leaf clover to illustrate the Christian belief in the three divine beings of God. In addition, it is suggested that St. Patrick superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol from pagan days, onto the Christian cross to create what is now know as a Celtic cross.

It is uncertain if these acts were fact or fiction. However, it is more of a fable that you should pinch someone for not wearing green and St. Patrick was not a leprechaun. The word leprechaun derives from the word shoemaker because they are ageless tiny men who drink heavily but still manage to hold a hammer steady and turn out beautiful leather shoes. While St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint, the leprechaun is regarded as Ireland’s national fairy.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.