Who is St. Patrick?
People all over the world celebrate on the 17th day of March in honor of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Some cities have parades, most revelers wear green, and a few families commemorate the day with traditional Irish fare for their meal. However, not everyone may know who St. Patrick is.
For starters, the real St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish. He was born in Britain around 390 A.D. to an aristocratic Christian family with a townhouse, a country villa, and plenty of slaves.
What’s more, Patrick professed no interest in Christianity as a young boy, according to historians.
At 16, he was kidnapped and enslaved by Irish raiders, sent overseas to tend sheep as a slave in the chilly, mountainous countryside of Ireland for seven years.
According to folklore, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family.
The voice then told him to go back to Ireland.
He was ordained as a priest and spent the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity.
Patrick’s work in Ireland was tough—he was constantly beaten by thugs, harassed by the Irish royalty, and admonished by his British superiors. After he died on March 17, 461, Patrick was largely forgotten.
But slowly, mythology grew around Patrick, and centuries later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland.
According to St. Patrick’s Day lore, Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the Christian holy trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Until the 1970s, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was a minor religious holiday. A priest would acknowledge the feast day, and families would celebrate with a big meal, but that was about it.
St. Patrick’s Day was basically invented in America by Irish-Americans.
St. Patrick’s Day was first publicly celebrated in Boston in 1737 where a large population of Irish immigrants resided.
Irish-American history expert Timothy Meagher said Irish charitable organizations originally celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with banquets in places such as Boston, Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.
Eighteenth-century Irish soldiers fighting with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War held the first St. Patrick’s Day parades. Some soldiers, for example, marched through New York City in 1762 to reconnect with their Irish roots.
Other parades followed in the years and decades after, including well-known celebrations in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, primarily in flourishing Irish immigrant communities.
“It becomes a way to honor the saint but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity,” said Meagher, of Catholic University in Washington, D.C..
Nearly 200 years later, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the Irish Free State was held in Dublin in 1931. During the mid 90’s, the Irish government also began to promote tourism in Ireland on March 17.
While many Catholics still quietly celebrate this day of religious observance by going to mass, St. Patrick’s Day slowly evolved to become a celebration of Irish heritage.
Through the years, along with legendary shamrocks, many symbols were included in festivities that are reflective of Ireland’s folklore, culture, and national identity (like leprechauns, ethnic cuisine, and wearing green).
Other places that join in on this celebration include Japan, New Zealand, Argentina, and Canada, along with many cities across the United States.
No Snakes in Ireland
Another St. Patrick myth is the claim that he banished snakes from Ireland. It’s true no snakes exist on the island today, but they never did.
Ireland, after all, is surrounded by icy ocean waters—much too cold to allow snakes to migrate from Britain or anywhere else.
Since snakes often represent evil in literature, when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland brought in a new age.
The snake myth, the shamrock story, and other tales were likely spread by well-meaning monks centuries after St. Patrick’s death.
Dying the River Green
Sometime in the 19th century, as St. Patrick’s Day parades were flourishing, wearing the color green became a show of commitment to Ireland, Meagher said.
In 1962 the show of solidarity took a spectacular turn in Chicago when the city decided to dye a portion of the Chicago River green.
The tradition started when parade organizer Steve Bailey, head of a plumbers’ union, noticed how a dye used to trace possible sources of river pollution had stained a colleague’s overalls a brilliant green, according to greenchicagoriver.com.
Bailey thought, ‘Why not use the dye to turn the whole river green on St. Patrick’s Day?’ So began the tradition.
The environmental impact of the dye is minimal compared with pollution such as bacteria from sewage-treatment plants, said Margaret Frisbie, the executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Chicago River.
Rather than advising against the dye, her group focuses on turning the Chicago River into a welcoming habitat full of fish, herons, turtles, and beavers. If the river becomes a wildlife haven, the thinking goes, Chicagoans won’t want to dye their river green.
“Our hope is that, as the river continues to improve, ultimately people can get excited about celebrating St. Patrick’s Day different ways,” she said.
Celebrating with Guinness
On any given day 5.5 million pints of Guinness, the famous Irish stout brand, are consumed around the world.
But on St. Patrick’s Day, that number more than doubles to 13 million pints, said Beth Davies Ryan, global corporate-relations director of Guinness.
“Historically speaking, a lot of Irish immigrants came to the United States and brought with them lots of customs and traditions, one of them being Guinness,” she said.
Today, the U.S. tradition of St. Patrick’s Day parades, packed pubs, and green silliness has invaded Ireland with full force, said classics professor Philip Freeman of Luther College in Iowa. The country, he noted, figured out that the popularity of St. Patrick’s Day was a good way to boost spring tourism.