March 17 is celebrated throughout the United States and Ireland as St. Patrick’s Day. On St. Paddy’s Day, as it is familiarly known, we wear green, eschew orange and drink gallons of green beer. (Yuck!) We hold parades, dye entire rivers green, and generally behave in a very un-saintly fashion.
St. Patrick: A Brief History (with a little guesswork thrown in)
St. Patrick himself is a figure shrouded in some mystery. He probably lived during the 5th century, and was a Roman Briton from a well-to-do family. When he was about 16 years old he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland where he was a shepherd for about 6 years. At the end of that time, ostensibly after having a God-inspired vision, he escaped and made his way to the coast where he was able to catch a boat for home.
After his arrival home, his Christian faith strengthened by his experience, he undertook religious training which continued over the next 15 years. He returned to Ireland after his ordination as a priest, with the mission of converting the heathen Irish and ministering to the Christians already there. Patrick served the Irish Christian community until his death and is considered to be the patron saint of Ireland. Definitely a missionary expat, then!
St. Patrick is credited with driving all the snakes out of Ireland, although there is no evidence there ever were snakes there. The snakes could be a metaphor for the druidic religion which he undermined. Ireland was completely Christianized by about 200 years after Patrick’s death.
After living among the Irish during the six years of his captivity, Patrick understood the language and the culture. Ever the canny missionary, Patrick craftily superimposed Christian symbols and rituals onto the existing pagan symbology instead of trying to eliminate the pagan Irish symbols and practices. For example, he took the sun, a powerful symbol of Irish pagan belief, and added it to the Christian cross, creating the Celtic Cross we still see today.
St. Patrick’s death is popularly believed to have been on March 17. After his canonization, Irish Catholics celebrated the anniversary of his death as a saint’s day with feasting (and drinking!) despite it’s occurrence during Lent.
St. Patrick’s Day Today
Today we associate St. Patrick’s Day with shamrocks, leprechauns and Irish nationalism.
- The shamrock was an important pagan symbol of spring. Patrick supposedly used it to teach lessons about the three-in-one nature of his Christian God. During the 17th century, the Irish started to use the shamrock as a symbol of their heritage and history and their dislike of English rule. Today it’s considered good luck, and a symbol of Irish nationalism.
- The leprechaun we know today is really an American invention, loosely based on Irish tales of the fairies or the “little people.” The original of the Irish fairy tale was a crafty, tricky, not very pleasant looking character who could (and often did) cause humans a lot of misery and confusion and was obsessed with gold and wealth. According to history.com, they were not associated with St. Patrick or his day until after Walt Disney released a film called Darby O’Gill & The Little People, which featured the cute, harmless little leprechauns we recognize today.
- Irish nationalism is symbolised by the shamrock and the color green. In the Irish flag, the green stripe represents the Irish Catholics while the Orange stripe represents the English Protestants. Wearing orange on St. Patrick’s Day is an insult to any true Irishman. We even make sure our canine companions comply.
Saint Patrick’s Day Parades
The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade took place, not in Ireland, but in New York City in 1762 when a group of Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched on March 17. By 1848, several Irish societies combined to form the official New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The New York City parade is the oldest civilian parade in the world, and the largest US parade with about 150,000 participants lasting 5 hours.
And while Americans were lifting a glass to St. Paddy, over in Ireland the pubs were closed on his day until the 1970s.
The website st-patricks-day.com lists parades in 45 US states and the District of Columbia (Alaska, Idaho, Hawaii, New Mexico and West Virginia don’t participate), as well as Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, most of the European countries (France is the notable exception), as well as China, Japan, Singapore, Tainwan, Korea and Dubai.