A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day

In the early 1600s, March 17th was recognized as a Christian feast day in honor of the death of the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick. Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day commemorates the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. The restrictions of eating and drinking alcohol during Lent were lifted on St. Patrick’s Day, which probably encouraged the excessive alcohol consumption that happens now. Today, March 17th is a celebration of Irish heritage and culture, and it is celebrated in more countries around the world than any other national festival. In fact, until the late 1900s, the biggest celebrations were held outside of Ireland by Irish diasporas

Saint Patrick is said to have used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the holy trinity to Irish pagans, which explains why shamrocks are associated so heavily with the Irish. Wearing green, however, first came from the Irish mythological story of Goidel Glas. Goidel Glas was bitten by a snake and saved from death by Moses placing his staff on the snakebite. Glas decided he would then forever retain a green mark that would lead his people to a land free of snakes. Green later became associated with Irish nationalism because of its use by the United Irishmen, an organization that led a rebellion against British rule in 1798.

The week of St. Patrick’s Day is known as “Irish Language Week” in Ireland. More people aim to use the Irish language instead of English. St. Patrick’s Day parades began in North America in the 1700s and did not spread to Ireland until the 1900s. In Northern Ireland, unlike the Republic of Ireland, a majority of the population saw themselves as British. Northern Ireland’s government did not observe St. Patrick’s Day. When the minority Irish population of Northern Ireland did gather for the holiday, it was private and small. In 1976, British loyalists detonated a car bomb outside a pub filled with Irish Catholics celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Four people were killed. Today, thankfully, the two communities can celebrate peacefully.

St. Patrick’s Day became a national holiday in Ireland in 1903. While the rest of the world had been hosting parades for many years, the first state-sponsored parade in Ireland did not occur until 1931 in Dublin. The first St. Patrick’s Festival did not occur in Ireland until 1996. It became a three-day event in 1997, then a four-day event, and it now lasts five days. In 2009, the festival had over one million visitors. Some Christian Irish leaders wish to reclaim St. Patrick’s Day as a church festival made for honoring Saint Patrick. I feel that it’s nice that the holiday has turned into a broad celebration of Irish heritage because it makes it more accessible to Irish people who do not practice Catholicism or Christianity. Furthermore, it is more fun to celebrate with friends who are not all of Irish descent.

St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on every continent and it was even celebrated on the International Space Station. Irish American astronaut Catherine Coleman played music on a hundred-year-old flute and a tin whistle belonging to members of the Chieftains, and Irish music group, while she was floating in the space station. The Chieftains featured her performance on the track “The Chieftains in Orbit”. 

Here in the United States, St. Patrick’s Day is not a legal holiday. However, that does not stop those of Irish descent, myself included, from celebrating. This year, St. Patrick’s Day is on Tuesday, March 17th.