We’ve all heard of Saint Patrick’s Day. Every year on 17 March people all over the world celebrate this occasion and all things Irish by dressing up in green and consuming copious amounts of alcohol. Yet most people know little about who Saint Patrick actually was and why this day is so widely celebrated.
Despite his Irish identity, Saint Patrick was believed to have been born in Dumbarton, Scotland in 385 CE. When he was 16, he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. Here, he became a devout Christian – even claiming to see visions from God. After escaping captivity, he returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary, helping baptise, establish churches and convert many to Christianity Patrick died around 461 CE. His widely-known position in Ireland cemented his position as the patron saint of the country, and a feast day declared in the seventeenth century on his alleged death date – 17 March.
The origins of the festival we know today began in 1737 in Boston, when the Charitable Irish Society of Boston celebrated the culture of the arriving Irish immigrants with a feast and religious service. This yearly tradition spread, and the first parade was held in New York in 1762. It was started by soldiers, hence the military theme in many modern parades. Since the colonial era, it is now celebrated in more countries than any other national festival, and is a national holiday in both Northern and the Republic of Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, but restrictions are lifted on the day, meaning a tradition of excessive alcohol drinking has emerged. The colour green has long been associated with Ireland, due to it being known as the “Emerald isle’ and as this day is a celebration of all things Irish, many people adorn themselves in green clothing. The shamrock is also closely associated with Saint Patrick’s Day. This is because he is said to have used the Shamrock as a metaphor for explaining the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish: the shamrock has 3 leaves which represent the father, the son and the Holy Spirit.
Today, Saint Patrick’s Day has become more about an expression of Irish culture rather than about the Saint himself. It was once heralded as religious holiday but it has evolved into more of a secular holiday. Its development into global popularity does not have an obvious explanation but the modern Saint Patrick’s Day has been criticised for being too commercial, and by some of propagating negative Irish stereotypes. Nevertheless it remains a time of year to celebrate and rejoice with friends and family, where all are invited to take part, Irish and non-Irish alike.