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  • Joanne Herd

From Parades to Pints: How Ireland Celebrates St. Patrick's Day

Updated December 6, 2023

Every year on March 17th, the world turns Irish! From turning the river green in Chicago to parades as far away as Tokyo, who can resist an excuse for a party?


While Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, the global nature of St. Patrick's day leads to a simple question. How much of what we celebrate on March 17th is really Irish? Let's find out! (Spoiler alert - Shamrock Shakes aren't actually Irish...)


Who was Saint Patrick?


While many St. Patrick's Day traditions date to the early 17th century, when Saint Patrick's Day became an official feast day in the Catholic Church, Saint Patrick's roots can be traced back to Roman Britain in the 5th century.


The saint himself isn't actually Irish. Saint Patrick was actually from England, most likely an area in modern Wales. That doesn't necessarily make him English either, though. The area his family was from was occupied by Romans, and his family may have been members of the Roman aristocracy.


Much of what we know of the saint's early life comes from his short autobiography, the Confessio. Scholars disagree on whether the account is actually fact or if the story was developed by Saint Patrick because it was how he wanted to be remembered.


Regardless, it is a fascinating tale!


Early in the 5th century, on the far edge of the crumbling Roman Empire, a ship full of Irish raiders raided the village of Bannavem Taburniae. These Irish soldiers took more than just plundered goods back to Ireland with them.


In the hold of their ship they carried a 16-year-old boy named Maewyn Succat. He was taken to Ireland, where he became a shepherd serving a local chieftain in County Antrim.


After 6 years of servitude, Succat walked 200 miles, across peat bogs and through forests, to a port where he boarded a ship bound for England and freedom.


Upon his return to England, he began to have religious visions. In them he heard the Irish people call out “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us."


Succat began his religious training, being ordained in 418 A.D. In 432 he was consecrated as a bishop and the name Patricius was bestowed upon him.


He decided his calling was to be a missionary, returning to the pagan island that he had fled so many years before. His knowledge of the language and customs gave him a deep connection to the local Druid priests and Celtic people, and he baptized them by the thousands before his death on March 17th, 462 A.D.


Ireland St. Patrick's Day celebrations


Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and the religious holiday was originally celebrated in commemoration of his death on March 17th in 462 A.D.


While the Roman Catholic Church's feast day to commemorate Saint Patrick dates to the early 17th century, the Irish have been commemorating the Saint for over a thousand years. The first feast day for Saint Patrick was held by the Irish people in the 9th or 10th century.


Since the holiday is a feast day in the Catholic Church, the celebration allowed Irish Catholics to break the Lenten abstinence that normally leads up to Easter.


In America the holiday has always had a more secular celebration than religious observation. It quickly became a day for Irish immigrants, who arrived in large numbers in the 19th century, to celebrate their Irish heritage.


In Ireland St Patrick's Day wasn't declared a public holiday until 1904. Today it's celebrated with parades, festivals, and religious services.


Many towns also hold traditional music and dance performances, while others host festivals celebrating Irish culinary favorites like Irish soda bread, Irish bacon and Guinness.


St Patrick's Day Traditions


While it's easy to assume that the parades and beer drinking that are synonymous with the holiday also have their roots in Irish tradition, those celebrations have their roots in America and traditions started by Irish American immigrants. They later spread back to the Emerald Isle.


Parades


The first parade in honor of Saint Patrick was held in 1601 in what is now St Augustine, Florida. The vicar of the Spanish colony was Irish, and he wanted to celebrate the day in memory of his homeland.


Over 100 years later, Irish soldiers in the English army marched in a parade in New York City on March 17, 1762. It was illegal in England for Irish people to wear green, speak Irish, or sing and play Irish tunes. Being so far from home gave these proud Irishmen a chance to celebrate their heritage in a way they couldn't at home.


Today St Patrick's Day Parades are held in more than 100 cities and towns across America, as well as around the world in places like England, Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.


In Ireland the largest and most famous St Patrick's Day parade takes place in Dublin, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors. It winds through the heart of the city, passing many of Dublin's most famous landmarks like Trinity College and St. Patrick's Cathedral.


Beer


Pubs are an integral part of Irish culture, and St. Patrick's Day is no exception. For many people in Ireland, the holiday is an opportunity to spend time with friends and family, enjoy a few pints, and soak up the festive atmosphere.


But beer didn't factor into Ireland's celebrations until the 1970s. Until then Irish law mandated that pubs be closed on March 17th in commemoration of the holiday. Today having a beer at the local pub with friends is a popular way to celebrate.


One of the most popular drinks on St. Patrick's Day worldwide is, of course, Guinness. This dark, rich beer has been brewed in Ireland for over 250 years and is synonymous with the country's pub culture. It's said that on St. Patrick's Day, more than 13 million pints of Guinness are consumed worldwide!


Guinness isn't the only beer that's popular on St. Patrick's Day. Other Irish beers, such as Smithwicks and Harp Lager, are also enjoyed by many. And for those who prefer something a bit stronger, Irish whiskey is another popular choice.


Green beer is not an Irish tradition, but is another tradition that was started in America. It is believed to have been started in a Bronx social club in 1914, and the dye used at the time was a powder used to wash laundry that is actually poisonous.


Fortunately for the millions of people who will consume green beer this year, the dye used now is not toxic. So raise a (green) glass in celebration!


Leprechauns


Leprechauns have been part of Irish fables since at least the 800's, but their association with Saint Patrick's Day is much more recent.


Traditionally leprechauns are described as a type of fairy, or “leipreachán” in Irish. They come from Celtic folktales, where they were tricky, cranky creatures who mended the shoes of other fairies.


While it's not known exactly when or why the leprechaun became associated with St. Patrick's Day, they remain an important part of Irish culture and tradition.


In fact, a 2011 survey conducted by an Irish whiskey brand showed that over 30% of the Irish population believe in leprechauns, and if you find one you can't harm it! They are actually protected under the European Habitats Directive.


Shamrocks


Legend says that the shamrock was used by Saint Patrick as a teaching aid to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) as separate but one.


While there is no historical evidence to prove that St. Patrick used shamrocks to teach, the clover is native to Ireland and is also the national plant. It's been used as a symbol of the Emerald Isle, along with the Irish Harp, since the late 17th or early 18th century.


The shamrock is a three-leaf clover, although it can occasionally grow a fourth leaf. It is the three-leaf version that is the symbol of Ireland, the four-leaf clover is simply a symbol of good luck.


The color green


One distinctive part of any St Patrick's Day celebration is the color green. But traditionally the color of St. Patrick has been blue. Even leprechauns haven't traditionally dressed in green clothing, but in red!


The association with green came in 1798, when the Irish fought the English in the Irish Rebellion. The Irish flag was green, and became a symbol of Irish resistance to Great Britain.


Wearing green is also supposed to help you avoid getting pinched by a leprechaun. Supposedly they can't see the color, so when you wear it you become invisible to them.


The bottom line


While St. Patrick's Day has become a global phenomenon, with parades, festivals, and green beer in many countries around the world, it remains a unique and special celebration in Ireland.


Whether you're in Ireland or elsewhere, it's a time to reflect on the history and traditions of this beloved holiday and to join in the celebration in your own way.


So, if you find yourself in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day, don't miss out on the chance to experience the customs and traditions of this vibrant and joyous occasion. And if you're celebrating from afar, don't forget to don your green and raise a glass to Irish heritage and culture - Sláinte!


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