As we approach March 12, 2022, we look back on the history of St. Patrick’s Day, its traditions and the criticisms it has faced through the years.
Every year, people around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, or the Feast of St. Patrick, on March 17. The day commemorates the anniversary of St Patrick’s death, the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and, in general, the heritage and culture of the Irish.
However, while the day holds holy significance in Ireland, many view the worldwide celebrations as culturally appropriate and filled with demeaning Irish stereotypes.
The Patron Saint Patrick
Maeywn Succot was born in the late 300s CE in Banne Venta Berniae, a town in Roman Britain.
Roman Britain consisted of large parts of Great Britain occupied by the Roman Empire from 43 CE to 84 CE.
The young man didn’t favour his given name and changed it to Patricius.
His father, Calpurnius, was a deacon in the early Christian church. Contrary to his father, Patricius didn’t hold that great of a belief in Christianity and its teachings.
At the age of 16, Irish pirates captured and enslaved Patricius as a shepherd for six years. The experience led him to convert to Christianity and his belief grew.
In Northern Ireland, before his first attempt at escaping to Britain, Patricius learned the Old Irish language and culture. During his escape, he was captured a second time by the French. In France, he learned about monasticism (monkhood).
Monasticism is a religious way of life where one renounces worldly pursuits to devote oneself to the spiritual world.
The French later released Patricius and sent him to Britain. When he reached home, he continued to study Christianity into his 20s.
While continuing his studies, he had a vision that told him to bring Christianity to the Irish people.
The Old Irish, or Celts, were originally pagan and druidic.
St. Patrick’s Preaching
Patricius, or St. Patrick left for Ireland in 432 CE. After he arrived, he began preaching Christianity, but he wasn’t well-received by the Celts who deemed him unwelcome on their land.
St. Patrick was forced to leave and landed on some small islands off the coast of Ireland, where he gained followers before moving to the mainland.
Up until his death, St. Patrick spread Christianity across Ireland. He baptized thousands of people, ordained new priests, guided women to nunhood, converted the sons of kings and established schools, monasteries and over 300 churches.
His death is believed to be on March 17, 461 CE.
The Legends of St. Patrick
Through the centuries, the patron Saint Patrick has been depicted in many myths and legends.
While some have conclusive proof saying it couldn’t have happened, these myths and legends remain deeply rooted in Irish history and culture.
St. Patrick Drove Snakes Away
The legend states that the patron saint underwent a 40-day fast on top of a hill when snakes began to attack him. He managed to successfully chase them all into the sea.
Although there is conclusive proof that there were no snakes in Ireland at the time, it’s still one of the most popular stories of St. Patrick.
The Shamrock and the Holy Trinity
The legend claims that St. Patrick explained the concept of the Christian Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, through the leaves of the Irish clover, the shamrock, to the Irish pagans.
It’s strongly believed to never have happened.
Nevertheless, the shamrock remains a strong symbol of Irish Christianity and pride. Additionally, St. Patrick is often depicted holding one.
St. Patrick Created the Celtic Cross
The patron saint tried to blend Christianity into the Celtic culture. One day, he noticed that the Celts liked circular patterns.
He decided to blend their circular patterns into the Christian Cross, thus creating the Celtic Cross.
This is unlikely to be true. The Celtic Cross had long been popular with the Celts before St. Patrick’s arrival. It symbolizes north, south, east and west, as well as earth, fire, air and water.
From a Walking Stick to a Tree
While preaching in Ireland, St. Patrick is depicted carrying a walking stick made from the wood of an ash tree. Every time he stopped to preach to the Celts, he thrust his walking stick into the ground.
On one occasion, he preached for so long that his walking stick developed roots and turned into a living tree. The site where it happened became known as Aspatria, meaning “ash of Patrick”.
It’s highly believed that monks are the source of the legend. They often promoted Patrick as a saint capable of producing miracles.
The First St. Patrick’s Day
Since 1631, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated as a religious feast day to commemorate the death of St. Patrick.
Catholics attended church in the morning and partook in modest feasts in the afternoon. There were no parades or emerald-tinted food and beverages.
Additionally, the traditional colour associated with St. Patrick’s was blue, not green. It was never green until the 1798 Irish Rebellion.
During the 1798 Irish Rebellion, a major uprising against British rule, the clover became a symbol of nationalism and wearing green on lapels became a regular practice. Green spread onto the uniforms of the Irish soldiers.
On March 17, 1737, the city of Boston claimed the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the American colonies. Two dozen Presbyterians that immigrated from Northern Ireland fathered to honour St. Patrick.
Around the same time, they formed the Charitable Irish Society to help distressed Irishmen in the city. They still hold an annual dinner every St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Augustine, Florida
Historian Michael Francis discovered records that state a Spanish colony in North America (no St. Augustine, Florida) held the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in America on March 17, 1600.
The records showed the use of cannon blasts or gunfire to honour the patron saint.
On March 17, 1601, residents of the Spanish colony passed through the streets to honour St. Patrick.
Lower Manhattan, New York
On March 17, 1762, Irish-born soldiers in the British army marched down the streets of lower Manhattan to a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at a local tavern.
Thus began the tradition of a St. Patrick’s Day parade to commemorate St. Patrick and the beginning of Christianity in Ireland.
However, the increase in parades since then caused an angry rise of nativists. These were anti-Catholic mobs with their own tradition of ‘paddy-making’, which occurred the day before St. Patrick’s Day.
Paddy-making consisted of nativists making life-sized representations of Irishmen wearing rags and necklaces made of potato and carrying whiskey bottles. The practice was banned in 1803.
The Irish in America
The Irish Catholics flooded into America after the Irish Potato Famine, or the Great Hunger, in 1845. Despite their situation, they held on to their Irish traditions.
They took to the streets during the St. Patrick’s Day parades to show strength in numbers. This was also a political response to the nativist “Know-Nothings” referral to the Irish.
When tens of thousands of Irish-Americans served in the Civil War, attitudes towards and views about them changed.
At the turn of the 20th century, St. Patrick’s Day evolved into a party day for Americans of all ethnicities but remained a solemn tradition in Ireland.
For decades, Irish laws prohibited pubs from opening on holy days, like St. Patrick’s Day.
The party evolution spread to Ireland after the first televised viewings of the run across the ocean. The Irish adopted some American-made traditions but didn’t adopt certain traditions, such as green Guinness.
Traditions of St. Patrick’s Day
Also known as the three-leaf clover, the shamrock was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland that symbolized the rebirth of spring.
In the 1700s, Irish immigrants brought the symbol and image of the shamrock to pay tribute to their heritage. Its significance grew after the spread of the legend of how St. Patrick explained the Christian Trinity.
The importance of the shamrock lies in the fight against British rule.
When the British seized control of Irish lands, they made laws against the use of the Irish language and the practice of Catholicism. Many of the Irish began wearing a shamrock as a symbol of their pride in their heritage and their displeasure with English rule.
Corned beef and cabbage are known throughout America as the traditional St. Patrick’s meal.
In Ireland, however, the traditional meal is ham and cabbage.
When the Irish immigrated to America, they found ham was expensive with their new budget. Corned beef turned out to be a cheap substitute for their impoverished lifestyle.
Both modern and folk music play a role in St. Patrick’s Day that are filled with Irish history and culture.
For the Celts, religion, history and legends passed from one generation to another through stories and songs. After the English conquered Ireland, they forbade the Celts from speaking their own language.
The Celts turned to music to help remember important events to hold on to their history and heritage.
Today, traditional bands produce music with instruments used for centuries.
Such instruments include the fiddle, uilleann piles (elaborate bagpipes), tin whistle (a flute made of nickel-silver, brass or aluminium), bodhrán (an ancient frame-drum traditionally used for warfare rather than music) and the Celtic harp.
A ‘Céilí’ is a social gathering in America centred around dancing to traditional Irish music. Irish cultural groups in America organize the gathering. They also teach performers céilí, a traditional Celtic folk dance for these musical gatherings.
Amongst floats and performers in St. Patrick’s parades, there will always be leprechauns.
According to Celtic beliefs, fairies and tiny men and women used their magical powers to serve good or evil.
The common depiction of a leprechaun is that they have a pot of gold that can only be found by catching one. This became part of an old tradition where young children made leprechaun traps.
While the leprechaun is strong in Irish culture and history, it has no strong association with St. Patrick’s Day. This is partially due to inconsistencies in their American portrayal.
Leprechauns originally wore red, not green. They became part of an American tradition.
Wearing the colour green is just as big of a tradition in America. The myth is that wearing green makes one invisible to fairies and leprechauns, who pinch and prank those who don’t wear the traditional colour.
Green Buildings and Rivers
Another tradition to honour the saint that originated in America is green landmarks.
In 1962, the City of Chicago decided to dye part of the Chicago River green to honour the patron saint. This started a campaign to have close to every landmark in the shade of green on March 17.
Among those landmarks are the Irish Parliament building, the Sydney Opera House, Niagara Falls and the Pyramids of Giza.
While Ireland does follow the majority of these traditions, there are some they choose not to follow or follow years later.
For example, the McDonalds Shamrock Shake started in America in 1970 for a limited time on St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish adopted the ‘new’ beverage in 2012.
Another would be Killian’s Irish Red ale, which is and has been exclusively brewed in America for decades.
Green beer also remains a strict American tradition.
Criticisms of St. Patrick Day
Although the day holds religious significance, the recent years of its party evolution face heavy criticism from the Irish and the LGBTQ+ community.
Drunkenness and Conduct
The day is often frowned upon for its connection with public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
On St. Patrick’s Day alone, beer sales rise by 150%.
On a regular day, worldwide, 5.5 million pints of Guinness are served on average every day. Statistics from 2021 show that 13 million pints of Guinness are sold every St. Patrick’s Day.
To the Irish-Americans who’ve held strong in their beliefs, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are too commercialised and tacky.
The American traditions strayed away from honouring the patron saint, the beginning of Christianity in Ireland and preserving Irish culture and heritage.
There have been recent attempts to rebrand St. Patrick’s Day and its celebration. Rather than a celebration of Irish heritage and culture, the US tried to make it a celebration of multiculturalism. This wasn’t well received by the Irish-Americans.
Additionally, the day evidently promotes demeaning stereotypes of Ireland and the Irish, such as wearing leprechaun costumes. While this may seem harmless, the costumes themselves are based on 19th-century derogatory caricatures of the Irish.
Since St. Patrick’s Day became an international celebration, many come to America to see the larger parades. During these teams, American retailers sell merchandise that denotes Irish stereotypes.
In 2014, the Ancient Order of Hibernians managed to successfully campaign against it. As a result, American retailers no longer sell such merchandise.
Due to America’s traditions and conduct of the holy day, the Irish came up with the term “Plastic-Paddyness”. The term describes St. Patrick’s Day celebrations outside of Ireland. It specifically refers to foreigners who appropriate and misrepresent Irish culture, claim Irish identity and enact Irish stereotypes.
St. Patrick’s Day faced criticism from LGBTQ+ groups because they were banned from participating in the parades in Boston and New York City.
Then came the Supreme Court’s decision on the matter in Hurly v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston. Boston lifted the ban in 2015 and New York did so in 2014.
The Cultural Significance of St. Patrick’s Day
Every year on March 17, the Irish Catholics celebrate the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death, the patron saint who brought their ancestors Christianity.
While myths and legends surround his origin and work, he still holds a firm place in their history, culture and heritage.
Although they feel that their holy day is being exploited for drunkenness and stereotypes, they still hold a firm belief about why the day is important to them.
Luck was a mechanism to be devised, and luck and destiny were merely two sides of the same coin.
-Idries Shah, author.