Every March 17, you are guaranteed to hear: “May the luck of the Irish be with you” or “Kiss
me, I’m Irish.” Even people with absolutely no Irish heritage are likely to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by attending a festival, eating traditional Irish meal or just simply wearing green. As someone with Irish heritage, this holiday has always been a celebration of my family history; a fun and free-spirited day full of Shamrocks, potatoes and beer. Yet, it is fascinating that a humble Catholic saint’s feast day has become such an iconic event, celebrated by millions around the entire world.
This St. Patrick’s day, I had the opportunity to attend a classic festival-like party in downtown Raleigh. Hosted by Milk Bar, the party closed the adjacent street. Exciting performances by Autumn Nicholas, Jared Place and Born Again Heathens featured traditional bagpipes fused with rock and roll. Booths displayed charming products from local makers Munjo Munjo and Bird + Beau. Food trucks and beer trailers lined the crowd. Each person wore a bright green shirt equipped with a shamrock headband, handkerchief, glasses or hat, and some people were even in full leprechaun costume.
Lively and spirited events like this happen all over the world in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. But
it is interesting to question: Who is St. Patrick? Why is this such a popular holiday even outside of Ireland? And, why do we follow these traditions?
Surprisingly, Saint Patrick is not Irish at all. Born around the fifth century in England (which
was then part of the Roman Empire), Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders at age 16. After spending six years in captivity, Patrick converted to Christianity. Later, he returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary. After dying on March 17, 461, St. Patrick was mostly forgotten. But, overtime, myth and legend grew; eventually, St. Patrick was named the patron saint of Ireland largely due to is his influential part is spreading Christianity to the Pagan nation.
Several legends surround Saint Patrick. Firstly, it is said that Patrick drove all of the snakes out of Ireland; symbolizing him cleansing the island of Paganism. Secondly, the missionary used the shamrock to explain the three part trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — while preaching, tying the shamrock plant, which is really any three leafed plant, to Irish identity.
With this connection to shamrocks, 18th century Irish people began pinning the plants on
their coats to show their Christian pride every March. Soon after, that tradition morphed into wearing green to show Irish connection: something we still do today. Green represents not only the shamrock, but the luscious green landscape the island has.
Yet, as important as Saint Patrick is to Ireland, the tradition of parades and festivals on this
holiday began in the United States. America has a huge Irish population; over 34 million Americans have Irish ancestry. After the famous potato famine in the 1840s, hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants moved into cities like New York and Boston. The first parade was in 1762 when a group of Irish soldiers
serving with the British military marched a few blocks to a tavern in lower New York City. Now, the New York Parade is the largest in the country with almost 200,000 participants and millions of spectators.
Now, America seems to have taken control of this Irish holiday. The iconic tradition of drinking a
green beer on St. Patrick’s Day is solely unique to the United States. There is likely no bar in Ireland that serves green beer. And Ireland itself copied American tradition; Dublin hosted its first St. Patrick’s day parade in 1995 to boost tourism.
This holiday has always been interesting to me. It is a fundamentally Christian feast day that has now transformed into a day of Irish national pride. Saint Patrick is credited for his spread of Christianity to Ireland, and later, Irish immigrants brought their Catholic tradition to America and beyond in the 1840s. Even people that are not even Irish love this holiday. St. Patrick’s Day is a chance for anyone to be a part of the jolly, loving, passionate and spirited Irish tradition. In essence, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is celebrating our vision of Irishness.