Not Exactly Lucky Charms Material
Today we celebrate it with funny green costumes, parades, and plenty of Guinness, but St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t always about fun and frivolity. In fact, for much of the 20th century, pubs in Ireland were legally required to stay closed on March 17 in honor of Patrick, the medieval saint who brought Christianity to Ireland.
St. Patrick lived from A.D. 387-461 and was born in Britain. Captured by marauders at the age of sixteen, he was enslaved in Ireland for 6 years. While in Ireland, he learned the Celtic language and religion of the Druids. Eventually, he escaped, fleeing back to Britain where he became a Christian priest. He returned to Ireland as a missionary determined to convert the country from paganism to Christianity. He used the shamrock to explain the idea of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to the Irish and remained in the country for forty years. Legend has it that the reason Ireland has no snakes is because St. Patrick drove them from the island. He is now the patron saint of Ireland.
March 17 is supposed to be the date of St. Patrick’s death. It falls within the Christian season of Lent, a time of sacrifice and prohibitions that leads up to Easter and the celebration of spring and Christ’s resurrection. Historically, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland would mean the temporary lifting of Lenten prohibitions against the eating of meat, and families would attend church and then celebrate with feasting and dancing. In 1903, St. Patrick’s Day became an official Irish holiday.
The Irish in America
St. Patrick’s Day parades are a common sight on March 17. Surprisingly, this tradition did not begin in Ireland, but in America where the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade took place in 1766 as a military procession New York. Colonial Boston also hosted many early American St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
As Irish immigration to the U.S. increased, so did St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the country. Initially a way for Irish immigrants to show strength and solidarity in the face of discrimination, by the middle of the 20th century St. Patrick’s Day parades had grown to be citywide celebrations, demonstrating just how integral Irish-Americans had become to the culture of the U.S. In 1948, President Harry Truman attended the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City, which had 80,000 marchers and about 1 million spectators. In 1949, author E.B. White wrote, “The only event that hits every New Yorker on the head is the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.”
St. Patrick’s Day Symbols
The color green predominates on St. Patrick’s Day and one is bound to see green beer, green clothing, green shamrocks and green top hats. In America, a student sent to school without any green is likely to be pinched. This tradition can actually be traced to historic conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. The Irish flag is made up of three colors: a bar of green for the Catholics, a bar of orange for the Protestants, and a bar of white for the peace between the two groups. In Ireland, the colors worn on St. Patrick’s Day can be a political statement.
The Chicago River has been dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day since the 1960s. Originally 100 pounds of a fluorescence dye for locating pollutants in the river was used. This kept the river disturbingly green for a week so the city began adjusting the quantity and, in response to the concerns of environmental groups, the type of dye it used. Today, Chicago uses about 40 pounds of a vegetable dye that colors the river for a few hours.
It wouldn’t be St. Patrick’s Day without a visit from the leprechaun, a legendary Irish fairy. The leprechaun is a solitary creature who works as a cobbler and, in old Irish tales, is dressed in red. Leprechaun’s are rumored to be in possession of pots of gold, the locations of which they may sometimes reveal to humans. Of course, theses days, if you can’t find a leprechaun, you can always buy yourself a consolation sack of chocolate coins at the grocery store.
St. Patrick’s Day has evolved over the centuries from a national saint’s day to an international celebration of Irish culture and history. As Irish immigrants brought their history and traditions along with them to new countries, so these countries adopted a new holiday. In the space of a century, Irish-Americans went from resented refugees to a lauded part of U.S. heritage. So, come March 17, put on your green top hat, set your leprechaun trap, and raise a pint to “the luck o’ the Irish.”
The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day by Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill