The History of St. Patrick’s Day

Once again, the time of the year in which rivers run green is approaching. For those of us who have some Irish heritage, it is a day to celebrate our lineage. Yet, what do we really know about St. Patrick and the history of the holiday?

Luck of the Irish
During St. Patrick’s Day, one is bound to hear the phrase “the luck o’ the Irish.” While generally thought to be in regards to the Irish being lucky, the phrase originated as a bit of sarcasm at the ill-luck that the Irish have historically had, including colonization and famine.

By the second half of the 19th century, the phrase began taking on a new meaning though. During the gold and silver rushes, many of the most famous individuals who struck it rich were of Irish background. As the Irish mining fortunes grew, the phrase began taking on a new connotation. 

While the phrase did begin to refer to the Irish being lucky, it was used as an insult, as if it was only by luck, and not brains or skill that the Irish were able to succeed. 

St. Patrick
There are many myths and misunderstanding about St. Patrick. One of the most common misconceptions is that St. Patrick was Irish. Instead, he grew up in Britain with an aristocratic family. 

At the age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders, and spent the next six years in Ireland. It was this experience, the loneliness and fear in particular, that influenced him to become a devout Christian.

After escaping from his captors and making the 200 mile trip back to Britain, Patrick began religious studies, which lasted 15 years. Upon his ordination, he was sent back to Ireland for a dual mission. 

Contrary to popular belief, St. Patrick did not introduce Christianity to Ireland. Instead, as part of his mission, he ministered to those Christians who already were present. The second part of his mission was to convert the Irish as well. 

The popular image of St. Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland also is not accurate. Opposed to that widely held notion, throughout history, the island has generally been devoid of serpents. By the time that St. Patrick made his way back to Ireland, there wouldn’t have been any snakes for him to drive off. Partially this is because the island is surrounded by water, which prevented snakes from occupying the land.

The tale, instead, is most likely allegorical. Within Christian tradition, the serpent has been a symbol of evil. They have also been linked to pagan practices. In such, the act of St. Patrick driving out snakes from Ireland is most likely a metaphor for the his Christian influence. 

Green and St. Patrick’s Day
Today, it is all too common to see people donning green during St. Patrick’s Day. The color has become so emblematic of St. Patrick that over the years, people have begun drinking green beer, and even dyeing entire lakes green. 

It probably wasn’t until the 18th century though that the color became associated with the Irish. At that time, supporter of Irish independence adopted the color to represent their cause, and it stuck. 

Before that, the color that was associated with St. Patrick was blue. Soldiers in the Order of St. Patrick even wore a specific shade that was called St. Patrick blue. 

An American holiday
Up until the 1700s, St. Patrick’s Day was a Catholic feast celebrated in only Ireland. Unlike the holiday today, the somber day, which observed the death of St. Patrick, was spent largely in prayer at church. 

When Irish immigrants began coming to the United States, the day soon became a celebration of pride, a day to confirm their ethnic identity as well as to create a bond of solidarity. 

Such celebration began after the Revolutionary War, when Irish soldiers marched through New York City in order to reconnect with their roots. Year after year, additional parades were held, leading to the day as we know it now. 

Today, St. Patrick’s day has largely become a secularized holiday to pay homage to Irish culture, even though not always accurately. While many celebrate it through parties, it does bring another culture to the forefront, and allows many to reconnect with their roots.