Ahhh, St Patrick’s Day. The day “going green” is given an Irish twist. The day we borrow a heritage and enjoy the comradery of celebrating some peculiar traditions together. The day everyone, Irish or not, is invited to wear green or get pinched, feast on corned beef and cabbage, find a four-leaf clover for good luck, drink a pint of green ale, go to a parade, or capture a leprechaun in hopes of finding his pot of gold. Oh, and don’t forget to “Kiss me, I’m Irish!”
Somewhere in the midst of all that fun, if you do a little digging, you’ll discover the man around whom all these shenanigans evolved - St. Patrick himself. What’s he got to do with the day named in his honor anyway?
Well, much like our previous saint, Valentine, there’s a bit of mystery, a fair amount of fact, and even more folklore surrounding St. Patrick. Truth be told, our modern-day celebrations on March 17 have very little to do with the original namesake.
- First - (and this may rock your world a bit), Patrick was not Irish; he was from an aristocratic family in Britain. At the very least, however, if you aren’t of Irish descent, you can assert your right to celebrate the holiday by reminding your friends and family that even its founder wasn’t Irish!
- Second - he wasn’t a saint, not technically, anyway. Though Patrick was acclaimed by the Church and the Irish people as a very godly man, the formal canonization process of the Catholic Church didn’t begin until the 10th century A.D. Patrick was born at the end of the 4th century. His believed death was on March 17 around 461 A.D. – and thus the established date of St. Patrick’s Day1.
- Third - Patrick was captured by marauding pirates at the age of sixteen, carried to Ireland and sold as a slave. He served as an indentured shepherd for six years. While not a Christian at the time of his abduction, his time alone on the green hills of the Emerald Isle brought his spiritual training back to mind. There, he became a devoted Christ follower and, as recounted in his “Confessions,” received several divine messages through dreams. One such dream instructed him to return to Britain. He walked over 200 miles to board a ship on which he was miraculously given passage and allowed to demonstrate the power of God through prayer to his shipmates2.
- Fourth - through another divine message, Patrick returned to Ireland years later to share the Gospel of Christ to those among whom he had lived. He is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, including to the Druids and Pagans.
- Fifth - the first St. Patrick celebrations were over 1,000 years ago and were religious in nature as a way of commemorating the man who became the patron “saint” of Ireland. With March 17 falling during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would usually attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon by dancing, drinking and feasting on a meal of Irish bacon and cabbage. This meal was modified to the cheaper corned beef and cabbage by Irish-Americans during the late 19th century3.
- Sixth - St. Patrick’s Day was recognized in Ireland as a public holiday way back in 1607, but the day didn’t become an official bank holiday until 1903. Interestingly, until the 1970s, Ireland demanded that all pubs be closed on the holiday. By the 1990s, the government had initiated festivals on St. Patrick’s Day to showcase Ireland and drive tourism, entrenching it as the country’s national holiday4.
What about all of the things we associate with St. Patrick’s Day now? How did we get from there to here? It seems that many of the truths, myths and practices of Ireland became conflated with St. Patrick throughout the centuries, and as new traditions were introduced, we arrived at the holiday we know today. Far from its origins as a religious holiday, the day has since become a secular, all-out celebration of Irish culture and heritage.
- The Color Green – Another Irish surprise is that Ireland, though called the Emerald Isle, was originally associated with the color blue, likely because of Henry the VIII’s claim as king of Ireland and his blue flag. Light blue was also associated with an 18th century order of knights, the Order of St. Patrick, to distinguish them from the royal blue of English dominance. The transition to green may have begun during the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641 in defiance of the British crown when a green flag was used to represent the Confederation of Kilkenny. Green uniforms were also worn by the Society of United Irishmen in the 1790s when they tried to bring nationalist ideas to Ireland. Later, Irish immigrants to America began wearing green and carrying Irish flags to demonstrate their national pride. Poems and ballads like “The Wearing of the Green” further solidified the move to green as the preferred color associated with Ireland, and thus with St. Patrick’s Day5. Today, the color green has become the most-recognized symbol of the holiday worldwide.
- Parades – The first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in America, not Ireland, but not to worry - it was organized by an Irishman (phew!) In 1601, in the Spanish colony of what is now St. Augustine, Florida, an Irish vicar, Ricardo Artur, conceived the idea and carried it out. More than a century later, during the U.S. fight for independence, Irish soldiers serving in the King’s army marched in New York City on March 17, 1772, to honor their sainted Patrick. From there, St. Patrick’s Day parades grew in popularity in the northeast, and eventually around the country, especially following the immigration of one million Irish Catholics during the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s. The parades became a way of showing their national pride, as well as their commanding political influence. Today, the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade takes place in New York City, while one of the most famous parades is in Chicago, where the Chicago river is dyed green for several hours.
- The 4-Leaf Clover – The luck of the Irish is often associated with the rare 4-leaf clover, which is now an established icon of St. Patrick’s Day. Legend has it, however, that St. Patrick used the 3-leaf clover, a shamrock, in explaining the concept of the Holy Trinity to the people of Ireland – one leaf (the Godhead) with three parts (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) - perhaps demonstrating the difference between faith and luck.
- Leprechauns – Because St. Patrick’s Day began as a religious holiday, leprechauns were not part of the original celebrations. As the day broadened to encompass everything Irish, the diminutive creatures of Celtic and Irish folklore became an ingrained addition to the festivities. Tradition says leprechauns are tiny cobblers of the fairy world who evade being seen by living in underground caves or hollow tree trunks. Originally dressed in red instead of green, they are believed to hide their pots of gold, which they earn as shoemakers, at the end of the rainbow, and only by catching one can you discover that magical place and be granted three wishes. But beware. Leprechauns are also known as tricksters who will lead you astray because of your greed for their gold. Now that’s something St. Patrick could probably get behind!
- “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” - You bought that cute green t-shirt to wear once a year on St. Patrick’s Day, but we’re guessing you don’t actually want everyone who reads it to do what it says, right? Because that would be a little icky. But how did the phrase “Kiss me, I’m Irish” come to be associated with St. Patrick’s Day? As yet another Irish legend that merged into the national holiday, the saying originates from kissing the Blarney Stone, a block of limestone at Blarney Castle in Ireland. A popular tourist site, folklore says that kissing the stone gives the kisser the gift of eloquent, flattering or coaxing speech6.
There are other traditions, of course, that all have their mysterious origins, such as the legend of St. Patrick driving out the (non-existent) snakes of Ireland, but suffice it to say that almost everything associated with Irish fact, fiction or folklore has made its way into the all-encompassing St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
We can say with relative certainty, however, that St. Patrick himself would be much dismayed at the secular festivities now associated with his name. As he wrote in his “Confessions,” “I did not go to Ireland of my own accord…I must not hide God's gift which He bestowed upon me in the land of my captivity; because then I earnestly sought Him, and there I found Him, and He saved me from all evil because—so I believe—of His Spirit that dwells in me…Hence, how did it come to pass in Ireland that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshipped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord, and are called sons of God…7”
Become a Student of History
Now that you know a bit more about the fact and folklore of St. Patrick, you may want to study the literary or historic side of Ireland and other world cultures. You’re in Irish luck! Ottawa University offers fully online degree programs in both English and History. Contact us today for more information.