10 things you didn’t know about St. Patrick’s Day

Who was St. Patrick? Why are shamrocks connected to the holiday? What’s with the whole green thing? Find out more than you ever wanted to know about the origins and the celebrations of the holiday.


Who was St. Patrick?

He’s the patron saint of Ireland. His birth and death dates aren’t precisely known, but he was allegedly active in the second half of the fifth century.

He was born in Britain; he was kidnapped at about 16 and brought to Ireland as a slave. He lived and worked there for about six years before he escaped. As a priest, he went back to the Emerald Isle, and is known as the man who brought Christianity to the country. (He’s also credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland, which is probably a metaphor since no one has seen any indication that there ever were snakes in Ireland anyway.)

March 17 is his feast day, the day he’s reported to have died. It’s not a Holy Day of Obligation among Catholics worldwide, but it is in Ireland.

Obviously, St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. Is he the patron saint of anyplace else?

Heck yes: He’s also patron saint of Nigeria and Montserrat, as well as the dioceses of New York (that’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in the picture above); Newark; Boston; Rolla, Missouri; Loiza, Puerto Rico; Murcia, Spain; and Melbourne, Australia. He’s also the patron saint of engineers (because he was a major force behind using clay and lime as building materials, instead of stone) and paralegals.

Who made St. Patrick’s Day a thing?

Sure, March 17 is Patrick’s feast day, but every day is someone’s feast day — St. Patrick shares the day with six other saints, and some days have more.

The man who made St. Patrick’s Day a real observance was Luke Wadding (1588-1657), a Franciscan priest, advocate in Rome for Irish Catholics who had been oppressed and supporter of the unsuccessful Irish rebellion of 1641. He advocated for St. Patrick’s Day to be recognized by the Vatican and become part of the church calendar — otherwise, we might be celebrating St. Joseph of Arimathea’s Day. (Apologies to the St. Joseph of Arimathea fans out there.)

A biography released in 1957 said Wadding’s “preference always was for the quieter pastures of scholarship and research.” Probably not beer pong or green plastic hats.

What does the shamrock have to do with St. Patrick’s Day, and the Irish?

St. Patrick is said to have used it to illustrate the Holy Trinity when he was evangelizing. (As is so often the case with Catholic symbols and traditions, there was no shortage of uses of the number three in the old pagan rituals.)

For that matter, where did the whole green/Irish thing come from?

Early representations of the first kings of Ireland, as well as the mythical figure Flaitheas Eireann, are associated with blue. When King Henry VIII turned Ireland into a kingdom in 1542, the flag was a golden harp on a blue background. When King George III set up a new order for Ireland, he picked a light blue for the Order of St. Patrick, which was the color used for the early St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

So where did the green come from? There are a few theories: One says it’s a nod to the nickname The Emerald Island; another says that new colors were picked for the Irish flag because between Scotland, England and Wales had blue among their colors and the Irish wanted to stand out.

Notice the mix of green and blue sported by the marcher in D.C.’s 2015 St. Patrick’s Day parade, pictured above.

Irishmen are — um, reputed to enjoy the occasional pint under regular circumstances, so they must really drink up on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, no?

Maybe some, but not so much. In fact, the pubs in Ireland were closed on St. Patrick’s Day until 1961.

It’s a national holiday and, again, a Holy Day of Obligation in Ireland, so it’s kind of a different deal — especially in the old days. Professor Mike Cronin, author of “The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day,” wrote for Time in 2015 that the day’s celebrations in Ireland included, from the 1920s through the 1950s, a military parade through Dublin. “Right through this period, the day was rather somber: mass in the morning, the military parade at noon,” Cronin writes.

When was the first St. Patrick’s Day parade?

It was held in 1766, Cronin tells Time — and it wasn’t in Ireland; it was in New York. The first parade in Ireland wasn’t until 1903.

So, wait a minute — the whole heavy-drinking, green-wearing, bad-singing celebration that we think of as St. Patrick’s Day: That’s really more of an American thing?

Pretty much. Check out the account of New York’s festivities for St. Patrick’s Day 1860 in The New York Times:

“…men and women in all stages of intoxication, from that balmy condition in which a man swears eternal friendship to all the world, and is anxious to embrace everyone he meets, to that in which he is unable to walk without tying knots in his legs, though supported by an official friend on either side. Drunken women with infants in their arms, men argumentatively disposed to establish logically the fact of their own sobriety, and victims of pugilistic skill, with too much color about the eyes, were yarded like cattle, in the fenced inclosure for prisoners in the Court.”

Geez. Should we Americans feel guilty about taking a kind of solemn holiday and turning it into something silly?

Cronin doesn’t think so. He writes that the Americanization of the holiday is nothing to be ashamed of: “St. Patrick’s Day [is] observed in a similar fashion to July Fourth or Halloween. It’s the closest thing in America to National Immigrant Day, a tribute not only to the Irish, but to the idea that Americans are all part ‘other.’”

How do we mark St. Patrick’s Day in D.C.?

The idea that St. Patrick’s Day is largely an Irish-American tradition is bolstered by the fact that the Taoiseach (the head of the Irish government — pronunciation-wise, “TEE-shukh” is close enough) spends St. Patrick’s Day in Washington. The presidential celebration started in 1952, though the Taoiseach’s presence didn’t become a part of the tradition until Bill Clinton’s time in office. (That’s Enda Kenny with President Barack Obama in 2016.)

The Taoiseach brings a Waterford crystal bowl full of shamrock flown directly from Ireland. The president gratefully accepts the gift — and then uses the bowl for whatever he likes. The shamrock itself, as with all gifts of food, drink or plants, is destroyed.

There haven’t been nearly enough stereotypical photos of people wearing green plastic hats and garish green jackets. Can you fit in one more?

You got it.

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