Just in case you weren't already aware, 17th March every year is the day designated for celebrating Ireland's patron saint, Saint Patrick, as well as all things Irish. It's a day full of festivities, parades, Irish cultures and traditions, and of course, plenty of the infamous 'craic'. It's a well known fact that St. Patrick's Day isn't just celebrated in Ireland, but also anywhere in the world where the Irish people have set up shop – which is just about everywhere! So to celebrate St. Patrick's Day this year, we thought we'd take a look at how our patron saint is honoured in Ireland and around the world.
Firstly, many people are surprised at the fact that Saint Patrick's Day is a national holiday not only in Ireland, but also in both Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada as well as the island territory of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Strange? Not really, when you consider that on 17th March 1788 in Montserrat, a widespread slave revolt took place that – although unsuccessful – set the wheels in motion for their struggle for independence.
As for Labrador and Newfoundland, the regions were largely first settled by Irish migrants. So now you know! That doesn't stop Irish communities in other parts of the world taking part in their own celebrations however; in fact there are more Irish people living outside of Ireland than in the country itself, so it would be almost rude of them not to! American cities such as Boston and Chicago have particularly large Irish American populations, but many other cities around the world make their Irish roots known too.
A History of Saint Patrick's Day
The 17th of March was chosen as the the feast day of Saint Patrick because that was the date of his death (although the year is unknown, it is estimated to be in the latter half of the 5th century AD). It was made an official Christian feast day in the early 17th century, and is recognised by the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, Eastern Orthodox Church and Lutheran Church. The 1200 years or so in between Patrick's death and his feast day passed without any commemoration of the man, and it was only when legends, stories, and some discernible historical facts about his life came to the fore that his life and work began to be celebrated.
Initially all celebrations were purely religious, mostly involving a celebratory mass and little more. In Ireland however, as the trend towards nationalism grew, the day became intrinsically linked with the cultural traditions that were re-emerging after centuries of being oppressed and stamped out by conquering forces. By the early 20th century it was a day celebrating not only Saint Patrick (and the religious ceremonies that came with the sainthood), but was also seen as a significant day for expressing Irish patriotism, celebrating Irish heritage and history, and carving out a uniquely Irish identity.
Simultaneously, Irish communities were springing up all over the place across the waters in both the UK and North America (as well as further afield), and were also using the day to remember their home, their beginnings, and their identity in strange and unfamiliar places.
Over time as society evolved and changed, Saint Patrick's Day became less about religion and more about fun, pageantry, tradition, and most of all, Irishness! Along the way, a series of uniquely Irish traditions have emerged, some a little bit more unusual than others!
Traditions in Ireland
The majority of the traditions associated with Saint Patrick's Day originated in Ireland. The most well known and well practiced is wearing green. While the leprechaun beards and green top hats are a more recent development of this trend, in past centuries people would have simply opted for a green coat, skirt, blouse, or even a tie, to be worn throughout the day wherever they went so that everyone would know of their pride for their Irish identity.
Nowadays people still wear at least some green items of clothing, either in the form of a rugby or soccer jersey to commemorate the national teams of either sports, a scarf or hat to keep out the sometimes chilly spring weather, or maybe even a novelty t-shirt. The truly committed may even wear a complete leprechaun costume, or dress up as Saint Patrick himself!
The most recognised symbol when it comes to Ireland is most definitely the shamrock. Believe it or not, this is not in fact our national symbol – that honour goes to the harp – but it's everywhere around St. Patrick's Day, and for a good reason. At the time when Saint Patrick was in Ireland, the majority of the population was still pagan. His life's work was dedicated to teaching the people of Ireland about God and converting them to Christianity; but this was more difficult than it sounds since they didn't speak the same as language as him, and most couldn't read or write either.
When speaking to the gathered crowds, Patrick came up with a handy way of explaining the concept of three gods as one (i.e the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) with the use of the humble shamrocks growing around his feet. Each leaf represented one element of the god, but all were part of the same plant. Simple! And so this teaching aid of his made its way into legend and became forever associated with Saint Patrick, Ireland, and Saint Patrick's Day.
On Saint Patrick's Day shops and street traders sell small pots of shamrock for people to wear somewhere on their person for the day. It could be attached with a pin to a blouse or jumper, stuffed into a shirt or jacket pocket, or even worn as part of a headpiece. Once picked however, the poor little shamrock plant doesn't last too long – definitely not all day – and becomes progressively more drooped as the day goes on.
By the end of the day (in past centuries at least), most people had ended up in a pub with dead shamrocks hanging from their clothes, so the only solution was to 'wet the shamrock', i.e. once your last drink of the evening was finished, you dump your shamrock into the empty glass, pour whiskey over it, and then throw it over your shoulder, apparently for good luck!
Ireland has traditionally been known as a very religious country, or more specifically, a very Catholic country. In fact up until as recently as the 1970s Saint Patrick's Day was still strictly a religious holiday, nothing like the jovial celebration it is today. The majority of the country would once have participated in every event in the Catholic calendar, and one of those was observing Lent (i.e abstaining from all luxuries between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday).
That meant little or no meat, dairy products, cakes and treats, alcohol or anything other than the most basic food and drink needed to stay healthy during that period. Lent always begins a few weeks before Saint Patrick's Day and ends a few weeks after, so on the day itself the ban was lifted for one day only. For that reason it has long been associated with treating yourself to something nice, be it a slice of cake, a glass of wine, or whatever else you decided to give up for the Lenten period.
Some people may find this difficult to believe, but the tradition of parades on Saint Patrick's Day is entirely an American creation. While the first Paddy's Day Parade in New York City was held all the way back in 1762, it wasn't until the 1970s that the trend took hold back on the Emerald Isle. Today the parades in the US are still on a much bigger, brighter and bolder scale than those in Ireland. In fact many of the Irish parades feature marching bands and the like from US cities. Since it was the first one to start, the parade in New York is still regarded as the biggest and best in the world – although Dublin's is probably the most fun!
Another international tradition that stretches back over 60 years and counting is the shamrock presentation at the White House. In 1952 during President Harry Truman's term of office, the Irish ambassador at the time (John Joseph Hearne) arrived at the White House with a box of shamrocks for the President. It was an attempt to strengthen Irish-American relations which had waned during the Second World War, in which Ireland had remained neutral. Ever since then, the presentation has happened every year on Saint Patrick's Day, or as close a date as possible depending on the US President's busy schedule.
Nowadays the Taoiseach of Ireland presents a ceremonial bowl of shamrock in person to the President, with a photo opportunity and brief conversation that makes new headlines across the world and lets Ireland take centre stage for a few brief moments every year.
Many famous landmarks around the world light up green after dark to honour the Irish and Saint Patrick's Day, in what has become affectionately known as the 'global greening'. The Empire State Building, one of the most iconic structures of the New York City Skyline, is probably the best known example. In fact in 2015 more landmarks than ever before are taking part in the initiative thanks to an international campaign by Tourism Ireland. Just a few selections from a very long list include:
The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
The Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris, France
The London Eye in London, England
The Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Pisa, Italy
The Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia
Cinderella's Castle in Disneyland, Paris, France
City Hall in Toronto, Canada
Manneken Pis Statue in Brussels, Belgium
The Olympic Tower in Munich, Germany
Burj Al Arab Hotel, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
The Tower of Hercules, Galicia, Spain
The Ancient City of Petra, Jordan
The Sphinx Monument, Egypt
Of course it's not all about buildings either; Niagra Falls and the Chicago River are just two natural landmarks that will get the green treatment on the day too!
Happy Saint Patrick's Day!