Most Irish folk will probably be familiar with the history of St. Patrick's Day, but we've decided to delve into some trivia so that those in the know can refresh their memory, and others who find themselves asking, "What's St. Patrick's Day anyway?" will have their questions answered. So get a bowl of Irish crisps to go with your Guinness and read on!
Who Was Saint Patrick?
Saint Patrick is perhaps still the most well-known patron saint of Ireland. He is believed to have died on March 17th, which is the reason it was named St. Patrick's Day in the early 17th century. At that time, it was celebrated as a Christian feast day observed by the Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran Churches.
The occasion typically celebrates the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, since Saint Patrick was responsible for swiftly converting a large number of the Irish to Christians during his lifetime. As such, for many in Ireland, St. Patrick's Day is primarily a religious holiday and many religions hold church services on March 17th.
Saint Patrick was believed to have been born in the fourth century in Roman Britain, which means he wasn't Irish by birth. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a Christian priest, and when he was a teenager he was kidnapped and forced into slavery in Gaelic Ireland.
It was during this time that he began working as a shepherd and found God. According to historians, he is traditionally believed to have returned to central Ireland to convert pagans into Christians, a quest that is considered highly successful.
According to legend, Saint Patrick is said to have chased all of the snakes out of Ireland, standing atop a hill and banishing them all during a 40-day fast. This allegedly prompted all of the reptiles in the land to slither into the sea and vanish. But the truth is that research confirms that snakes never existed in Ireland to begin with, at least according to fossil records.
What's With the Leprechauns?
Most often associated with Ireland and St. Patrick's Day, Leprechauns are folkloric figures with many legends attached to them, including but not limited to them possessing an infamous pot of gold they must hand over to you if you catch them. The original Irish name for them is “lobaircin,” which translates to “small-bodied fellow.” Since Celtic tradition in Ireland largely promoted the belief in fairies, believing in the existence of Leprechauns is believed to have stemmed from the same school of thought.
Leprechauns are traditionally believed to be tiny men, historically illustrated as being red-haired, dressing in green, and smoking a pipe. They typically had magical powers that could be used for good or evil. In Celtic folktales, leprechauns were cranky beings, responsible for mending the shoes of the other fairies. Though only minor figures in Celtic folklore, leprechauns were known for their trickery, which they often used to protect their aforementioned treasure.
As a result, Leprechauns made their way into the Irish lexicon and culture as fairytale-type figures of deceit and trickery, and since St. Patrick's Day quickly became an occasion to celebrate all things Irish, Leprechauns tricked their way into the holiday. Despite Leprechaun imagery and costumes appearing on March 17th, the tiny men actually have their own holiday on May 13th, Leprechaun Day, typically celebrated in most parts of Ireland.
What Does the Shamrock Have to Do with Ireland?
Also known as the "seamroy" in Celtic tradition, the shamrock is a three-leaf clover that was considered a sacred plant in ancient Ireland as it symbolized the rebirth associated with spring. According to legend, Saint Patrick used the plant as a visual guide when explaining the Holy Trinity.
As such, by the 17th century, the shamrock became a symbol of an emerging Irish nationalism, as the English had begun seizing Irish land during this era, attempting to outlaw Irish languages and practice of Catholicism. As a result, many of the Irish embraced the shamrock as a symbol of pride in their culture, emphasizing their rebellion against the impending English rule.
Interestingly enough, however, while the green of the shamrock came to influence the use of the color on St. Patrick's Day worldwide, it was actually the color blue that was associated with Saint Patrick. According to Smithsonian magazine, "The earliest depictions of St. Patrick show him clothed in blue garments, not green, and that when George III created a new order of chivalry for the Kingdom of Ireland, the Order of St. Patrick, its official color was a sky blue, known as St. Patrick's Blue."
Further reading: Should We Be Wearing Blue on St. Patrick’s Day?
How is St. Patrick's Day Celebrated in Ireland and the UK?
St. Patrick's Day is celebrated as an official bank holiday in Ireland, but is sadly not considered one most of North America. There is one exception, however: it's a bank holiday in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, in Canada. In Ireland and the UK, the degree of celebration on March 17th often varies depending on the person's religious background or political affiliations
According to TimeandDate.com, "Those who believe that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom do not generally celebrate the day. Those who believe that Northern Ireland should become part of a United Ireland often celebrate St Patrick's Day."
Meanwhile, March 17th is a mostly normal day for many people in England, Scotland and Wales. "They go to school or work as normal, and do not hold or attend any special events. Some may go for a drink in their local Irish pub at lunch time, after work or in the evening. However, in some towns and cities, particularly those with large Irish populations, parades and other large scale events are organized."
As for the rest of the world, any place that is likely to have any population of Irish people is likely to throw a party! Parades are common in most metropolitan cities across Canada, and any number of Irish pubs are bound to commemorate the occasion. In most Christian traditions observing lent, those who have pledged to give up alcohol are usually allowed to have a cheat day on the 17th. So if you've got even the slightest bit of Irish blood in you, or you just like an excuse to put together an event, St. Patrick's Day is a standout on the calendar.