A Wee Bit of St. Patrick’s Day History

Posted by on March 17, 2009

It’s easy to forget that the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day started as a religious feast honoring a Catholic saint who transformed the lives of thousands of people, thousands of years ago.


Most people know that St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and he is widely credited with driving all the snakes from Ireland. (Which is a falsehood; there never were any snakes on the island at all.)

But, did you know that before coming to Ireland on a mission to convert the Irish to Christianity, that the English-born Patrick was held captive in Ireland for six years as a young man? It is believed that during this time, Patrick formed his plan to convert Ireland. Eventually he escaped and returned some 15 years later as a Catholic bishop.


Converting a Nation


St. Patrick is credited with founding 165 churches across Ireland. Like a good marketer getting his point across, he knew how to communicate. He wisely incorporated ancient Celtic pagan symbols that were familiar to his converts into his teachings. He used the shamrock plant, revered by the Irish as a portent of spring renewal, for lessons about the Holy Trinity. Likewise, he incorporated the sun (another strong pagan symbol) into the Christian cross; today we call it the Celtic cross.

There is some debate over the actual date of his death, although March 17th is his official feast day. He died in the 5th century A.D., and his feast day has been celebrated for more than a thousand years.


The Americanization of a Saint

CC St Patricks Greening River

In Ireland, the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is more of a religious holiday that the beer fest it has become in America. Stores are closed, workers have the day off, and until the 1970s, the law required that pubs be closed.

Here, though, I think our St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are a combination of celebrating a heritage that millions of Americans share, as well as a chance to just have some fun to get out of the winter doldrums.

In Chicago (where I grew up) St. Pat’s Day is a pretty big deal. So much so that the City of Chicago uses 45 pounds of vegetable dye to color the Chicago River green for a day! The annual spectacle draws over 400,000 visitors and culminates in a parade down Michigan Avenue. (Photo credit: © City of Chicago / www.ChooseChicago.com)

The idea of a St. Patrick’s Day parade is a uniquely American creation, although the date of the first parade is of some debate. Some say the first St. Pat’s parade took place in Boston in 1737, while others believe it was 1762 in New York. In 1848, several “Irish aid” societies in New York banded together to produce one parade for the city; the result is the oldest civilian parade in the world with 150,000 participants.

One date is uncontroverted: the potato famine of 1845 that sent thousands of poor Irish Catholic immigrants to the U.S. Since then, the number Americans claiming Irish descent is now ten times the actual population of Ireland!

A stone carving of Saint Patrick on the lower door to the Chapel Royal of Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland. (c) searagen/Fotolia

A stone carving of Saint Patrick on the lower door to the Chapel Royal of Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland. © searagen/Fotolia.com

Finally, in preparation for fun and frivolity this evening, here are a couple of phrases to get you started. “Erin go bragh!” In Gaelic, that simply means, “Ireland forever.” And the Irish cheers, “Slainte!” (pronounced, slurred, “it’s a lawn chair”) means “to your health!”Slainte!