It is St. Patrick’s Day again, the holiday that traditionally honors the anniversary of the death of St. Patrick. Over history, however, the holiday has taken on a life of its own, and is known now as a time when many people wear green to show their Irish descent or their Irish spirit. There will be plenty of green beer to drink in crowded bars, and plenty of corned beef and cabbage meals will be consumed. Parades will honor the holiday in numerous cities, and the Chicago River will be dyed green in honor of the holiday. For the most part, these are the things that most people in North America associate with the holiday, as well as leprechauns, four leaf clovers, and pots of gold at the end of a rainbow.
Looking back through history, however, it may be surprising to note that St. Patrick’s Day was traditionally recognized in a very different manner in Ireland itself. What has long been considered in North American history as the ultimate Irish national day, has actually been quite muted in Ireland’s history until recently. St. Patrick’s Day began with a high brow grand ball at Dublin Castle each year during the latter half of the 19th century. In fact, it did not become a national holiday in Ireland at all until 1904. Even when it was recognized as a holiday and celebrated, it was done in a toned-down fashion that many Americans would likely find surprising. There was a military parade on the streets of Dublin, and church services for most in the morning. Bars were actually closed for the day, which was seen as a quiet day of religious observance.
That began to change in the 1960s, when the military parade was replaced with floats and bars were re-opened. The focus of St. Patrick’s Day shifted to become a day of having fun in Ireland, although the Irish probably took a lesson from North Americans in this regard, St. Patrick’s Day has a far longer and more extensive history in the United States.
St. Patrick’s Day began in the United States in Boston in 1737, when an elite bunch of Irish immigrants got together for dinner to honor the Irish saint. Almost 30 years later, the tradition of holding a St. Patrick’s Day march through the streets of New York City began when Irish Catholic members of British nationality decided to march in honor of the holiday. St. Patrick’s Day really grew to prominence in American history when waves of immigrants from Ireland made the Irish presence in America much stronger after the Civil War. By the end of the 19th century, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were widespread throughout American cities. By the 20th century, the holiday had grown so big that even people with no Irish background began celebrating and wearing green.
Irish-Americans celebrated the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day for several reasons. It was an attempt to counter negative stereotypes that had plagued them throughout history, as well as a show of strength for their national pride. Also, it was a time to both honor and celebrate their common Irish roots, as well as an opportunity to embrace their new country in America. They have been a prominent presence throughout the history of the United States, and today, there are 33.3 million Americans with Irish ancestry.
Even further back in history, this was the holiday that honored St. Patrick, who lived in the 5th century, and who is often credited for bringing Christianity to Ireland. This turns out to not be exactly true, as history reveals that a bishop named Palladius actually introduced Christianity to the Emerald Isle before St. Patrick ever got to Ireland. Even so, St. Patrick eventually came to be regarded as the patron saint of Ireland, with the Vatican recognizing the holiday in 1631.
There are also some popular misconceptions about St. Patrick himself which have no basis of truth in history. He did not rid Ireland of snakes and, in fact, there is no existing evidence that snakes ever existed in the country. Moreover, his name was not Patrick at all, but Maewyn Succat. He was held captive by pirates as a teenager and was sold into slavery, but managed to escape as a young man. One other myth that has persisted throughout history is that St. Patrick used the clover to teach people about the Holy Trinity. In truth, there is nothing to suggest that this was the case. It may also be a surprise that the color representing Ireland has not always been green. In fact, the main color of the national flag, as well as the knights in the Order of St. Patrick, was blue.
St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday with a rich history, and appears to still be growing ever more popular. It has become a major holiday in retail as well, as it now rakes in an average of over $4 billion in retail sales.
By Charles Bordeau
Photo courtesy of Pawel Loj Flickr Page – Flickr License