Deconstructing St. Patricks Day
Deconstructing St. Patricks Day
By Rebecca Dixon, Custom Ireland, a DMC Network Affiliate
For many, a trip to the Emerald Isle to celebrate St Patrick’s Day is a bucket list travel experience. This beloved holiday is celebrated globally as the world unites and becomes Irish for a day, but for many, a front row seat on the streets of Dublin city for the annual holiday parade, is a next level experience! Some may choose a more epic journey and following the footsteps of St Patrick himself by visiting some of Ireland’s most iconic sites: St Patrick’s Cathedral in County Down, Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Hill of Slane in County Meath, or The Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary… Whatever the intentions for your travel to Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day, the trip is sure to be unforgettable.
But who is St. Patrick anyway? When and where did the Paddy’s Day traditions begin? The answers may surprise you.
Deconstructing St. Patrick’s Day
When you think of St. Patrick’s Day, visions of 4-leaf-clovers may dance in your head, and you wouldn’t dream of stepping outside of the house without wearing a touch of green for fear of getting pinched. March 17th is a global celebration of Irish culture and a universal claiming of Irish heritage. From its humble beginnings as a commemoratory feast for Ireland’s Patron Saint, to a festival of leprechaun hats and green beer, St. Patrick’s Day has morphed into one of the most beloved and widely celebrated holidays on the planet.
Who is Saint Patrick?
Would you be shocked to learn that Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, is not actually Irish?
Saint Patrick was born by the name Maewyn Succat around 387 AD. It is believed that he and his family were wealthy Romans living in Britain, but at age 16, Maewyn was abducted by a band of Irish pagans. He was taken to Ireland where he was enslaved and sent to work as a sheep herder on Slemish Mountain in what is now Northern Ireland.
Maewyn spent 6 years in captivity where he became fluent in the Irish language, and began to appreciate the culture and admire the spirit of the Irish people. During his time as a slave, it is said that God came to him in a dream and told him to escape to the coast where he would find a ship waiting to take him back home. Upon his escape, it was then that he began studying monasticism in France and continued to study Christianity in Britain where he adopted the name Patrick (or Patricius) upon becoming a priest. He then returned to Ireland to bring Christianity to the people, who were predominantly pagan and druidic at the time. For the next 40 years, he would continue to spread the gospel, establish churches, and convert thousands to Christianity before dying of natural causes on March 17th in his late 70s or early 80s in County Down, Northern Ireland.
When did St. Patrick’s Day Traditions and Celebrations Begin?
The March 17 celebration started in Ireland in 1631 when the Church established a Feast Day honoring St. Patrick. Irish immigrants eventually brought this tradition over to the American colonies, and it was there that Saint Patrick started to become the symbol of Irish heritage and culture that he is today. As more Irish ventured across the Atlantic, the Feast Day celebration slowly grew in popularity.
In fact, the first St. Patrick's Day celebration parade was not in Ireland at all. In 1737, the Charitable Irish Society of Boston held the world’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade, followed by New York in 1762. Today, festive parades are held all over the world.
The Shamrock, The Four-leaf Clover & The Luck Of The Irish
According to religious lore, Saint Patrick deemed the three leaves of the shamrock to represent the holy trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. As such, in Irish culture, the shamrock connotes association to both Saint Patrick and the Holy Trinity. Shamrock is a Gaelic word meaning “little clover.” A clover must have three leaves to be considered a shamrock. If the clover has more or less, then it is not a shamrock. Hence, all shamrocks are clovers, but not all clovers are shamrocks. Traditionally, shamrocks are used as a symbol of Ireland.
So why do we confuse this with the four-leaf clover? We can blame the leprechauns! The leprechaun has become one of the most iconic Irish symbols of St. Patrick’s Day. This popular fairy-like figure has been in Irish folklore for centuries. Leprechauns are believed to carry both sacks of gold and a four-leaf clover, both of which are symbolic of luck and prosperity. They are also said to be guardians of the treasures rumored to be left by the Vikings toward the end of the 9th century. At the end of the rainbow, there is said to be a four-leaf clover garden where the leprechauns hide their gold; therefore, the rainbow is also an important symbol associated with the four-leaf clover.
Nonetheless, both plants have come to be associated with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, albeit in different capacities. It’s no wonder they are often confused, but it is important to remember that the shamrock and four-leaf clover actually have very different meanings.
Wear Your Green (Or Get Pinched!)
When you pick out your touch of green for Paddy’s Day, no doubt you are choosing your protection to keep you from getting pinched! According to folklore, wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day makes you invisible to leprechauns, who apparently like to pinch humans, so green is essential for your safety.
Aside from the superstition, there is a much deeper significance to wearing green. This tradition dates back to the 18th century and the Irish Rebellion, when Irish soldiers wore green as they fought off the British who wore their trademark red. Until then, the colour that had been associated with St. Patrick and Feast Day was actually blue. The soldiers, however, sang a song during the war in 1798 titled, “The Wearing of the Green,” that was highly influential in converting the patriotic colour of Ireland from blue to green. As green is also the colour of shamrocks, it became Ireland’s mainstay colour. From then on, people wore green on St. Patrick’s Day in solidarity. And when Chicago dyed their river green for the first time in 1962, the practice of wearing and decorating in green became a part of pop culture and making it commonplace to don your greens for the day.
All That Drinking Though!
The (sometimes excessive) use of alcohol on Paddy’s Day can be attributed to historical subtext, successful product advertising, and part stereotyping. March 17th, or St. Patrick’s Day/Feast Day falls during the Lent season. In order for patrons to participate, Lent restrictions were lifted for the day, giving Christians an exception to their commitments. Originally, Feast Day was a day to eat and drink in celebration to the heart’s content; however, imbibing on whiskey and beer was not part of those original festivities. In fact, pubs in Ireland were actually forced by law to shut down for the holiday, and drinking alcohol on St. Patrick’s Day was actually frowned upon until the late 1970s.
In the 80s, enter Budweiser in America. There was a massive marketing push that targeted St. Patrick’s Day as the ideal holiday to enjoy a beer. Or a few. The advertising campaign paid off and took hold across the rest of the world, and many people now use the holiday as an acceptable excuse to drink superfluous amounts of alcohol. Unfortunately, this also plays into and fosters negative stereotypes by incorrectly associating the act of excessive drinking with Irish culture.
As for the green beer, that’s an even earlier addition. But this colourful beer is not an Irish tradition: it's an American-born innovation using blue food colouring. By the 1950s, green beer was a mainstream symbol of the holiday. The tradition spread across America as bartenders caught on that it was easy to make green beer and even easier to sell it. Eventually, the beverage became so popular that it went international.
The Burning Controversy:
What is the proper nickname for St. Patrick’s Day: St. Paddy’s or St. Patty’s?
According to paddynotpatty.com:
IT’S PADDY, NOT PATTY. EVER.
SAINT PATRICK’S DAY? GRAND.
PADDY’S DAY? SURE, DEAD-ON.
ST. PAT’S? IF YE MUST.
ST. PATTY? NO, YE GOAT!
Paddy is derived from the Irish, Pádraig: the source of those mysterious, emerald double-Ds.
Patty is the diminutive of Patricia, or a burger, and just not something you call a fella.
There isn’t a sinner in Ireland that would refer to a Patrick as “Patty”!
Whatever your traditions and however you celebrate, keep it lighthearted, have fun, be safe and enjoy! Take pride in your Irish heritage, or relish in the warm and friendly culture and simply enjoy being Irish for the day! In the spirit of the Irish, we leave you with these well-known Irish blessings/quotes:
“May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow. And may trouble avoid you wherever you go.” – Irish Blessing
“For the whole world is Irish on the Seventeenth o’March!” -Thomas Augustine Daly
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