The evolution of: Saint Patrick's Day

BY Anna Walker

1st Jan 2015 Life

The evolution of: Saint Patrick's Day

The Irish and the wanna-be-Irish have been celebrating St Patrick's Day for decades. But this festival has always been far more than an excuse for a booze-up. Here's the fascinating history of all things St Paddy. 

Who was St Patrick?

Saint Patrick was a 5th-century missionary and bishop in Ireland. Most of what we know about this legendary figure, however, comes from his own writing; a work he called Declaration. 

The surprisingly-not-Irish Patrick was the son of a deacon, born into a wealthy Romano–British family in the 4th century. Despite his wealthy connections, 16-year-old Patrick was kidnapped by a gang of Irish raiders and taken back to Ireland as a slave. There he spent six years working as a shepherd boy and discovering the voice of God.

One day, God told Patrick to flee to the coast. He followed the instructions and there he found a ship waiting to take him home. When he returned to Britain, Patrick became a priest.


"[St Patrick was] as bold as Columbus, and a thousand times more humane." 

– Historian Thomas Cahill 

Despite the indignity of his first passage to the emerald isle, St Patrick decided to return to Ireland after joining the priesthood. He wanted to devote his life to converting the pagan country to Christianity. 

Since his death, there have been many legends surrounding St Patrick, some say he used shamrocks to explain the holy trinity to pagans, with each leaf representing either God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit—a symbol that has become synonymous with Ireland.

Other stories were a little more outrageous, some sources claim he could transform himself into a deer, and perhaps the most famous of them all, claims he drove all the snakes from Ireland...


What have snakes got to do with it?

snakes kick butt
Image via Irish Central

As good as this story is, sadly Ireland never had any snakes to drive out in the first place. Snakes first evolved 100 million years ago when Ireland was still submerged in water and since the reptiles are yet to master the art of swimming, migration to the emerald isle was never really an option. 

Patrick spent many years driving off pagans such as the Celts, and his efforts to protect the new Christian people of Ireland has been turned into an allegory where snakes represent the pagans.


So without the miracles, what's the fuss about?

Legends and folklore aside, Patrick was still a pretty good saint. Although he was born into wealth, he never forgot his days as a humble shepherd boy and continued to help the poor all his life. 

St Paddy was also the first of the church fathers to speak out about violence against women and the mistreatment of slaves. He was also one of the first missionaries to go beyond comfortable circles and speak to the people other missionaries deemed 'barbarians'.

In fact, American historian Thomas Cahill went so far as to claim that, "the step he took was in its way as bold as Columbus', and a thousand times more humane." 


How did the celebrations begin?

St Patrick's Day
An early American parade. Image via Modern Farmer

By the 9th and 10th centuries, St Patrick’s Day was already being celebrated as a major festival throughout Ireland and Europe.

In the early 1600s, it took on even more prominence as a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics, which meant Catholics were obliged to attend mass on that day.

In 1903, St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, finally became an official public holiday in Ireland thanks to the Bank Holiday Act. But the celebrations started to get a little out of hand and laws were enforced meaning pubs and bars were to close on that day. Thankfully for Guinness fans the law was overturned in the 1970s.


"The shamrock is a religious symbol. St. Patrick said the leaves represented the trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That's why four leaf clovers are so lucky, you get a bonus Jesus."

– Stephen Colbert

1903 was also the year of the first ever St Patrick’s Day parade, held in Waterford in South East Ireland, where the city holds an annual parade to this day. The first parade simply involved a procession of the mayor, members of the Waterford Corporation, the Trade Halls and several bands.

The madness associated with the festival today really began in the US. Irish Americans who wished to share their identity and avoid losing their cultural ties would host banquets in cities including New York, Boston and Phiadelphia, where there were a high number of Irish immigrants.

The first St Patrick’s Day parade in the US took place as early as 1762 and was commonplace by the time Ireland held their first parade in 1903. Amazingly, today there are more Irish people living in the US then there are Irish people in Ireland. A whopping 34 million Americans can lay claim to Irish ancestry.

Chicago show their commitment to St Paddy by dying their river green every March 17, a tradition that dates back to 1962. It takes 40 tonnes of vegetable dye to achieve the desired emerald shade.

In the mid 1990s, St Patrick’s Day took on a new significance for Ireland. The government of the Republic decided to turn St Patrick’s Day into a showcase for Ireland and its culture. It aimed to create a national festival and empower and celebrate people of Irish descent.


"The list of Irish saints is past counting; but in it all, no other figure is so human, friendly, and lovable as St. Patrick—who was an Irishman only by adoption."

– Stephen Gwynn

The first festival was held in 1996 and by 1997 it had already spiralled into a three-day event. By 2000 it was four days long and during 2009’s five-day celebration, 675,000 people attended the parade alone. Overall the festival of 2009 hosted close to a million visitors.

The focus of St Patrick’s Day has shifted over the ages, away from solemn Christian reflection towards alcohol-fuelled patriotic revelry, something many church members have expressed concern over.

Friar Vincent Twomey for example, told The World magazine in 2007 that, “it is time to reclaim St Patrick’s Day as a church festival.” He questioned the supposed need for “mindless, alcohol-fuelled revelry” and argued that it was time “to bring the piety and the fun together.”

Read more about the time honoured holiday with A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day: Traditions, Favorite Foods, and other Interesting Facts, available on Amazon.

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