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As many people already know, St. Patrick is the Catholic patron saint of Ireland, and we celebrate his feast day every February 17, by wearing shamrocks, eating corned beef and cabbage, and getting rip-roaring drunk.   However, according to Philip Freeman, who is a classics professor at Luther College in Iowa, "The modern celebration of St. Patrick's Day really has almost nothing to do with the real man." (1 St. Patrick’s Day)  Indeed, the entire celebration is pretty much an American invention.

The real St. Patrick started out as just Patrick, and he wasn’t even Irish.  He was born in Scotland around 385 CE to Roman parents who were there running the Roman colonies. When he was around 14, he was captured by a raiding party and taken to Ireland as a slave to be a shepherd.  (St. Patrick)

Though Patrick’s parents were Christian, Patrick apparently had no interest in being a Saint at an early age.  It was in Ireland, however, that Patrick became deeply religious.  (2 St. Patrick’s Day)  It was in a dream, when Patrick was 20, that God told him to escape to the coast, and it was there that he hopped a boat back to his native Scotland.  Safely home, Patrick had yet another dream where he was told to return to Ireland, which he did, but not until 433, after he rose all the way to Bishop in the Catholic church.  Upon his return to Ireland, he reportedly converted one of the tribal chieftains who had intended to kill him.  From then until the time of his death on March 17, 461, Patrick, along with all of his disciples, pretty much converted all of Ireland to Christianity, performing miracles and building churches along the way.  (St. Patrick)

Ironically, even though Saint Patrick is one of the most recognized saints in the world (right up there with St. Nicholas and St. Valentine), he has never been officially canonized by the Catholic church.  But that’s not surprising, since the Catholic church had no formal canonization process until the 12th Century.  Instead, saints were pretty much chosen by popular acclamation and then more than likely blessed by the local clergy.  (Roberts) 

Even though he had a good run in Ireland, it took awhile for St. Patrick to gain popularity anywhere, including Ireland.  (Roach)  It wasn’t until the 1970s that St. Patrick’s day became anything more than “a minor religious holiday” in Ireland.  Since then, though, it has become much more of a celebration, showing that the Irish know how to cash in on a good thing, and that good thing was happening in the United States.  (Roach) 

Not surprisingly, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated more in the United States than it is in Ireland.  Eleven percent of American citizens claim Irish ancestry, which comes out to around 35 million people, which is more than seven times the population of Ireland.  (St. Patrick’s Day)  As such, St. Patrick’s day has become more a celebration of ethnic solidarity than celebrating the life of a saint. (Roach) 

St. Patrick’s Day celebrations started out slowly in the United States as just a few scattered banquets in Irish strongholds, such as Boston.  It was in 1762 that the first St. Pat’s parade was held as Irish soldiers, who were there with the British, marched in New York City “to reconnect to their Irish roots.”  By the 19th Century, the parades had spread across America, and so had the colour green.  It was in 1962 that, for the first time, the Chicago River was dyed green.  (Roach) 

With anybody that becomes larger than life, there are many things associated with that person that grow as well.  Some, such as the Shamrock, are probably true.  Others... not so much.  As the legend goes, Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Trinity, and it has been associated with him and the Irish ever since, (St. Patrick) although actually wearing a shamrock only dates back to the 17th Century at the latest.  (Roach)  Even though St. Patrick was originally depicted in blue, it is also from the shamrock that the colour green has become associated with St. Patrick’s Day. (2 St. Patrick’s Day)

As for banishing the snakes from Ireland, it is true that there are no snakes on the island, but it is also true that there never was.  More than likely, the snake legend was an allegory for removing the evil, non-Christian ways, from Ireland.  (Roach)

With drinking on St. Patrick’s Day...  What can I say?  The Irish love to drink.  They rank fourth in the world for per capita beer consumption (behind the Czech Republic, Germany, and Austria – the US ranks 13th). (List of countries)  However, on St. Pat’s Day, the sell of Guinness (the quintessential Irish beer) more than doubles worldwide.  (Roach)  In fact, St. Patrick’s Day comes in second only to New Year’s Eve on the top ten list of drunkest holidays. (Fitzpatrick)

Along with drinking copious amounts of beer on St. Patrick’s Day is the tradition of having corned beef and cabbage.  Like many other customs associated with the Irish Saint, this did not begin in Ireland.  The actual Irish dish is corned beef and bacon, but in the late 19th century, when Irish immigrants in the United States couldn’t afford bacon, they used corned beef as a substitute, and it stuck.  (Corned Beef)

As far as Leprechauns go, there doesn’t seem to be any direct connection with them and St. Patrick’s Day.  Leprechauns, who originally were depicted wearing red, are mythical Irish fairies who cobble shoes and hide their money in pots at the end of the rainbow. (Berry)  They seem to have come along for the ride with everything else Irish that has been exploited for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

It is also from leprechauns that we get the wholly American “tradition” of pinching people who don’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day.  It was believed that leprechauns would go around pinching people on St. Patty’s Day.  However, the colour green made one invisible to leprechauns, and you can’t pinch what you can’t see.  So to remind people not to get pinched by leprechauns if they weren’t wearing green, they would get pinched.  (Haq)

It is said that on St. Patrick’s Day everybody is Irish.  And that may be true.  But even if you’re not, you’re still invited to the party... as long as you bring the beer.  And don’t forget to wear green.


Work Cited

Berry, Allison.  “Happy St. Patrick’s Day! A Brief History of Leprechauns.”  17 Mar. 2012.  Time News Feed.  04 Mar. 2014.  http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/03/17/happy-st-patricks-day-a-brief-history-of-leprechauns/

“Corned Beef.”  24 Feb. 2014.  Wikipedia.  04 Mar. 2014.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corned_beef#Saint_Patrick.27s_Day

Fitzpatrick, Laura.  “2. St. Patrick's Day.”  17 Mar. 2011.  Time Lists.  04 Mar. 2014.  http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1986906_1986905_1986888,00.html

Haq, Husna. “St. Patrick’s Day:  Why do we wear green?”  17 Mar. 2010.  The Christian Science Monitor.  04 Mar. 2014.  http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2010/0317/St.-Patrick-s-Day-Why-do-we-wear-green

List of countries by beer consumption per capita.” 29 Jan. 2014.  Wikipedia.  04 Mar. 2014.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_beer_consumption_per_capita

Roach, John.  “St. Patrick's Day 2011: Facts, Myths, and Traditions.”  16 Mar. 2011.  National Geographic News.  04 Mar. 2014.  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110316-saint-patricks-day-2011-march-17-facts-ireland-irish-nation/

Roberts, Patrick.  “Ireland's patron Saint Patrick was never canonized a saint by the Catholic Church.”  01 Mar. 2013.  IrishCentral.  04 Mar. 2014.  http://www.irishcentral.com/opinion/patrickroberts/st-patrick-was-never-canonized-a-saint-by-the-catholic-church-118153804-238171911.html

“St. Patrick.”  2014.  Catholic Online.  04 Mar. 2014.  http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=89

“St. Patrick’s Day.” 2014.  History.com.  04 Mar. 2014.  http://www.history.com/topics/st-patricks-day

“St. Patrick’s Day.”  04 Mar. 2014.  Wikipedia.  04 Mar. 2014.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick's_Day#Wearing_of_the_green