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Ten things you didn’t know about Ireland’s favourite saints

St Brigid was bulimic! St Therese restored the eyesight of Edith Piaf! St Nicholas is the patron saint of… what?!

TODAY, as if you needed reminding, is St Patrick’s Day – the feast day of St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, and the country’s national holiday.

And while most of the festivities of the day have little to do with religion, we thought we’d take a while to take a slightly sideways glance at our patron saint – and some others – to reveal some of the things you may never have known about some of them.

Ten things you didn’t know about Ireland’s favourite saints
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    Let's start with the man of the moment. St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, being credited with spreading Christianity to the island. Here's the thing, though: it might not have been him. Most modern theory is agreed now that there were, in fact, 'two Patricks' - suggesting that the historical legend of Patrick has been mixed up with that of St Palladius. That, or history has deliberately tried to scramble the two to create a single figure with a greater catalogue of success. Palladius is associated with Leinster, while Patrick himself is associated with Ulster and Connacht.
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    Regardless of whether it's Patrick or Palladius you're thinking of, you probably didn't know that it's not just Ireland he's the patron of. He's also the patron saint of Nigeria (the story goes that Irish priests evangelised the country and gave it their own saint) and of Montserrat, which also marks the day as its national holiday and where Patrick appears (with a harp?) on the country's flag - alongside the Union Jack marking its status as a British overseas territory. St Patrick's Day is also a holiday in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. (We don't know why.)# He's also the patron saint of curing toothache. It’s thought that when St Patrick (the Ulster one) was returning from a pilgrimage to Lough Derg, he stopped to drink from a well in Magherakeel - and was instantly cured of a dodgy chopper.
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    Patrick wasn't the only saintly one in his family though. His nephew Germain - possibly the nephew of Palladius, admittedly - went to evangelise Paris, and in doing so became the patron saint of rape victims due to his success in stamping out the sexual abuse of women there.
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    St Brigid, after Patrick, is probably Ireland's next best-known saint - though as it turns out, she may have also suffered from the same fate as Patrick; there was a saint Brigid and a Celtic Goddess Brigid knocking around at the same time. Regardless, Brigid was a legend among her peers: so much so that the priest who administered her last rites had his hand encased in metal afterwards, for fear it would ever touch another mere human.
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    Brigid's life didn't go all that swimmingly, though: Brigid's mother Brocca was the mistress of a pagan chieftain, and was kicked out of her job as a slave when she fell pregnant. Brigid, as a result, was brought up by a druid who bought - bought! - her mother. She would milk his cows (giving all their milk away to the needy, however) and apparently had such difficulty eating their meat that she would bring herself to throw it back up again. This, if true, would make her one of the earliest sufferers of bulimia.
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    St Therese of Lisieux is something of a rock star among saints. Living fast and dying young (at just 24), the 'little flower' is one of the world's best-travelled corpses - and attracted nearly three million visitors when she spent ten weeks in Ireland in 2001. But that's not the most striking thing: she apparently restored the sight of famous French songstress Edith Piaf. A harsh bout of keratitis left her blind from the age of 3, but her grandmother pulled together the money to send her on a pilgrimage to Therese's burial place, where she was miraculously cured. Therese wasn't even a saint at the time.
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    St Valentine is a strange saint: he's become so well-known that many forget he was a saint at all. But - like Patrick and Brigid before him, in this list - he wasn't one saint, he was FOURTEEN, all of whom were martyred in ancient Rome. The bones of ONE of them were donated by Pope Gregory XVI to Dublin - where they now lie in the church at Whitefriar Street, just off Aunger St, alongside a small vial of his blood.
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    St Nicholas is best known for leaving presents to good girls and boys every December 24. But how did he get that reputation? Well, it has something to do with how he's the patron saint of... prostitutes. Turkish legend has it that a poor neighbour of Nicholas had three teenage daughters. Because the poor man would not be able to offer any potential suitors for his daughters any meaningful dowry, when they reached adulthood they would likely have no career to enter other than prostitution. To save them from this, Nicholas allegedly entered the family home on the night before each sister came "of age" and left a pouch of gold coins - enough for each of them to handsomely live off.
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    Francesco 'Pio' Forgione, better known as 'Padre Pio', is one of the newer additions to the ranks of sainthood, being canonised in 2002 by Pope John Paul II. There's still ongoing debate, however, on whether his most famous trait - his decades-long stigmata - was genuine. Some claim that his wounds on his hands and feet were actually caused by the self-inflicted use of carbolic acid to stop them from healing over. This stems from the testimony of a chemist from whom Pio ordered 4g of the acid - an order Pio asked to keep secret - though the Church claimed he used it merely to steralise needles in his hospital. (That hospital saw Pope Pius XII grant him special dispensation from his vow of poverty in order to fundraise for the project.)
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    Finally, one that many revellers during today's festivities will want to bear in mind. Millions of pints will be drank across Ireland to celebrate St Patrick's Day - so spare a thought for St Arnold of Soissons. Arnold, the abbot of a monastery, brewed beer and encouraged his parishioners to drink it instead of water, believing in its ‘gift of life’. As a result, he is known as the patron saint of beer and brewers. (Incidentally, one of St Brigid's believed miracles is that she used to turn her used bathwater into beer to offer to her guests. The Irish friendship with alcohol really does go quite a way back.)

Additional reporting by Jennifer O’Connell.

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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