St Patrick's Day 2015: the Irish feast made in America

Mar 17, 2015

Drinking and parades may now be St Patrick's Day staples, but neither tradition hails from old Ireland

St Patrick's Day is a religious and cultural holiday celebrated by Irish people, and the Irish-at-heart, worldwide on 17 March – although London's official St Patrick's Day parade took place on Sunday.

The feast day of Ireland’s patron saint, who lived from 385 to 461 AD, falls within Lent and offers Christians a respite from restrictions on eating and drinking. Revelry and merriment are the order of the day.

But although millions of people don green regalia to mark the occasion with parades, good cheer, and even the odd pint or two, many of the traditions associated with St Patrick are far from ancient.

Colour me misinformed

An association with the colour green is relatively recent, reports Time Magazine, which says the knights of St Patrick actually wore a colour known as "St Patrick's blue". Modern academics also note that blue features prominently on many of Ireland's ancient Celtic flags.

The use of green as a symbol of Ireland didn't really become widespread until the end of the 18th century, when green banners were hoisted by the United Irishmen during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The same period saw the shamrock adopted as an emblem of Irish nationalism – an association that continues today.

Green is now inextricably linked with Ireland and its patron saint. St Patrick's Day parades, both in Ireland and the rest of the world, are awash with green costumes, flags and floats.

Booze, glorious booze

Another misconception surrounding St Patrick's Day is that it has always been an excuse for a round of drinks. But although the occasion became an official public holiday in Ireland in 1903, thanks to campaigning in Westminster by Irish politician James O'Mara, public houses in the Emerald Isle weren't allowed to open on 17 March until the 1960s for fear it could promote excessive drinking.

Since the repeal of these restrictions, drinking has become an integral part of the celebrations. The Daily Telegraph estimates that global sales of Guinness more than double on St Patrick's day – jumping from a daily average of 5.5 million pints to 13 million on 17 March.

Rain on the Irish parade

Though unofficial St Patrick’s Day parades were commonplace in Ireland throughout the 19th century, the first official parade didn't occur in Dublin until 1931. In fact, the St Patrick's Day parade as we know it today is a largely American invention.

The first parade on US soil took place back in 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the English army celebrated the holiday by marching through the streets of New York. By 1848 this parade was an annual city event, and today New York's procession includes over 150,000 people, and attracts nearly three million spectators.

But while New York has the St Patrick's Day parade, Chicago invented its own tradition of dying the Chicago River green to mark the occasion. In 1962 sanitation workers realised that the green dye they used to check for illegally dumped sewage could double as a St Patrick's Day decoration. The city has been greening its waterways ever since.

Nearly 35 million Americans claim some sort of Irish ancestry – that's seven times the population of Ireland itself, and according to Philip Freeman, "St Patrick's Day is basically an invention of this Irish American contingent. ... Modern celebrations really have very little to do with Irish traditions, or St Patrick himself."  

St Patrick and politics

The Americans also fostered a link between St Patrick's Day and the civic and political life of many big cities, especially on the east coast, which had attracted big Irish populations. Police departments and fire brigades employed many Irish migrants, and became active participants in St Patrick's Day parades. JFK, himself of Irish-Catholic stock, said the celebration was "as purely American as it is Irish, recalling for all that ours is a nation founded, sustained, and now preserved in the cause of liberty. None more than the Irish can attest the power of that cause once it has gripped a nation's soul."

The Australian prime minister struck a different note today with his St Patrick's Day message, talking up songs, humour, parties and Guinness. The message was derided in Australian media for being embarrassingly similar to the St Patrick's Day message he delivered last year," The Guardian reports. "Irish media have branded it patronising."

St Patrick: the man himself…

St Patrick was neither Irish nor called Patrick. According to history.com, despite his relative "celebrity" among religious figures, St Patrick still "remains somewhat of a mystery".

Born at the end of the fourth century to wealthy aristocratic parents in Roman Britain, St Patrick's real name is believed to be Maewyn Succat, but his life took an unexpected turn at the age of 16 when he was kidnapped from his parents' estate by Irish raiders.

Shipped to County Mayo as a slave, he spent the next six years working as a shepherd with only his faith to sustain him. Growing steadily more devout, St Patrick eventually managed to escape with the aid of a mysterious voice – a voice he believed to be God. Legend has it he walked a staggering 200 miles to reach the coast at the behest of the voice, returning to Britain as a stowaway on an Irish pirate ship.   

Upon his return he quickly began a 15-year course of religious training, dedicating himself to God completely by becoming a priest. His religious training culminated with a dispatch back to Ireland on the church’s behalf, where he was charged with converting the country’s pagan population to Christianity. This is where the long-standing affiliation between Ireland and the shamrock is said to begin, with St Patrick supposedly using the three leaves of the plant to explain the holy trinity to Irish pagans.

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St. Patrick was a Welshman who studied theology at the College of St. Illtyd at Llantwit Major, South Glamorgan. He was despatched to convert the Irish.