I am a major enthusiast for history of all kinds. I especially love researching and writing about the lesser known parts of history.
There Is a Fascinating Story Behind Saint Patrick's Day
We all learn about Saint Patrick’s Day from the time we’re little kids. From the beginning, we’re cutting shamrocks from construction paper, wearing green, singing Irish songs, and (for some of us) drinking beer.
But what do we really know about Saint Patrick and the holiday that bears his name? This article offers some history and insight in 10 wonderful bite-sized chunks:
- Saint Patrick Was Not Born in Ireland
- The Celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day Dates Back to the 9th Century
- The First Saint Patrick’s Day Parade Took Place Not in Ireland but in New York City
- Saint Patrick Did Not Drive All the Snakes out of Ireland . . . or Did He?
- The Iconic Saint Patrick’s Day Clover Represents the Holy Trinity
- Saint Patrick Is Credited With Introducing the Celtic Cross
- Global Consumption of Guinness Increases Over 800% on Saint Patrick’s Day
- Wearing Green on Saint Patrick’s Day Has Political Origins
- You Wear Green on Saint Patrick’s Day to Hide From Leprechauns
- Drinking on Saint Patrick’s Day Used to Be Illegal in Ireland
1. Saint Patrick Was Not Born in Ireland
While much of Saint Patrick’s life is shrouded in mystery, one fact that is known for sure is that he was born to a wealthy Roman family in Britain sometime around the year 486. Patrick lived in Britain until the age of 16, when he was kidnapped by Irish raiders who took him to Ireland and sold him into slavery. He was a slave for six years.
While a slave, Patrick turned toward Christianity to help him cope with his situation. It was also during this time that Patrick began to have visions of the Irish reaching out their hands to him. These visions drove Patrick to want to convert the Irish to Christianity.
After six years in captivity, Patrick supposedly received a vision that told him that it was time for him to escape Ireland and return to Britain. Patrick brokered passage on a ship that took him home to be reunited with his family. Not long after returning home, Patrick entered the seminary. After spending 15 years there, he was ordained as a priest and sent by Pope Celestine I to spread the Gospel to the Irish.
2. The Celebration of Saint Patrick's Day Dates Back to the 9th Century
Saint Patrick is believed to have died on March 17, 461. During the 9th century, Irish Catholics started observing the Roman Catholic Feast Day of Saint Patrick. In the beginning, Saint Patrick's Day was observed as a strictly religious holiday with people going to church and spending time with friends and family.
The tradition involving drinking likely grew out of the fact that the holiday falls during Lent, a time when Catholics abstain from many desires. Many Catholics started using the holiday as a respite day from their Lent crucible and indulging in some fun drinks and festivities.
3. The First Saint Patrick’s Day Parade Took Place Not in Ireland, but in New York City
The first Saint Patrick’s Day parade took place on March 17, 1762, in New York City. It consisted mainly of Irish soldiers serving in the British military. This parade started a tradition that culminated in the formation of the New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, which is the largest and oldest civilian parade in the world.
Every year, over 150,000 participants march the 1.5-mile-long parade route. They are watched by an estimated audience of 3 million people who line the streets.
4. Saint Patrick Did Not Drive All the Snakes out of Ireland . . . or Did He?
Almost every child in elementary school hears the story of how Saint Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland with a shamrock. As kids, that is a neat story to hear while you cut your own shamrock out of construction paper. But where does this story come from, and is there any truth to it?
The legend goes that while performing a 40-day fast, Saint Patrick was accosted by snakes. As a result, Saint Patrick chased all the snakes in Ireland into the sea. There is a nugget of believability to this story since there are no snakes in Ireland. However, according to scientists, the reason is that there never were any snakes in Ireland.
No Archeological Evidence of Snakes
According to Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, there is no archeological evidence of snakes ever inhabiting Ireland. Monaghan bases this conclusion on an analysis of fossil records and other historical evidence. During the last Ice Age that ended approximately 10,000 years ago, Ireland was far too cold for reptiles. When it ended, snakes were unable to cross the sea from the warmer areas they inhabited to colonize Ireland.
That is a cool science lesson, but I have to say, to picture Saint Patrick bravely chasing dangerous snakes into the ocean with a shamrock is a much more exciting explanation.
5. The Iconic Saint Patrick’s Day Clover Represents the Holy Trinity
We’ve all been picking clovers out of the ground and making them out of construction paper since we were children. I myself remember scouring the grass of my school and my yard, looking for that elusive and lucky 4-leafed clover. But I never asked myself why. How did the clover come to be associated with the Irish, and why does a 4-leafed clover bring good luck?
The story surrounding the clover involves Saint Patrick’s use of it to explain the concept of Christianity to the Irish people. Legend has it that Saint Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock or clover to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity, including the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
From this legend evolved the legend of the four-leaf clover. According to experts, approximately 1 in 10,000 clovers have four leaves. Today many believe the four leaves symbolize faith, hope, love, and luck.
6. Saint Patrick Is Credited With Introducing the Celtic Cross
Having spent time in Ireland, Patrick was familiar with the Irish culture and its many pagan traditions. As a result, he incorporated many Irish traditions into his Christian teachings to make them more appealing and palatable. The most famous example is the Celtic Cross. During this period, many Irish worshipped the sun as a deity. Recognizing this fact, Patrick combined an image of the sun with the Christian cross to form the now iconic Celtic Cross.
7. Global Consumption of Guinness Increases Over 800% on Saint Patrick’s Day
No drink is more associated with Saint Patrick’s Day than beer, and no beer is perhaps more associated with the Irish than Guinness. On Saint Patricks Day, consumption of Guinness increases by over 800%, according to Steady Serve.
It is estimated that 33 million people down at least one Guinness on Saint Patrick’s Day. That adds ups to approximately 13 million pints. In addition to beer, cabbage shipments increase 70% during Saint Patrick’s Day week. Approximately $6 billion is spent on Saint Patricks Day related festivities every year.
8. Wearing Green on Saint Patrick’s Day Has Political Origins
We’re all told that we need to wear green on Saint Patrick’s Day to avoid getting pinched. But why green? The answer may surprise you.
Well, according to Paul Finnegan, the Executive Director of the New York Irish Center, wearing green actually symbolizes Irish Republicanism, a nonsectarian movement from the late 18th century that campaigned for Ireland to become an independent republic. You see, before it was associated with green, Ireland was associated with the color blue. How can this be?
How Did Blue Become Green?
During his reign in the 16th century, Henry VIII claimed the Irish throne. His royal flag at this time included blue. In fact, you can still see Henry VIII’s influence in Ireland today. The flag of the president of Ireland is not green but blue with a harp. In 1641 the Great Irish Rebellion saw Catholic landowners and bishops rebelled against English rule. One of these rebel groups was the Confederation of Kilkenny, led by Owen O’Neill. O’Neill used a green flag with a harp to represent his group. This is the first known official use of the color green to represent Ireland.
In the 1790s, the Society of United Irishmen, a group devoted to Irish independence, wore green as part of their official uniform. It was during this time that several ballads and poems were written about the group and its use of green, and the tradition spread.
9. You Wear Green on Saint Patrick’s Day to Hide From Leprechauns
I remember as a kid waking up on Saint Patrick’s Day scared of having my skin compressed by some immature classmate. “Don’t wear green, or you’ll get pinched,” I used to hear. But what does that have to do with anything?
Legend has it that, on Saint Patrick’s Day, leprechauns go around pinching people who aren’t wearing green. Apparently, wearing green makes you invisible to leprechauns the same way that mud made Arnold Schwarzenegger invisible to the Predator. So, until leprechauns invent some sort of green vision detector, the color green will keep you safe on Saint Patrick’s Day.
10. Drinking on Saint Patrick's Day Used to Be Illegal in Ireland
With all the Guinness consumed on Saint Patrick's Day, it's hard to believe it was ever a dry holiday. Well, that's exactly what it was in the Emerald Isle up until fairly recently. From 1903 to 1970, Irish law declared St. Patrick's Day a religious observance for the entire country. That meant that all pubs were mandated to be closed for the day so people could spend the day in church or at home with their friends and family. The law was overturned in 1970 when St. Patrick's was reclassified as a national holiday, and pubs were allowed to open, much to the delight of Irish and beer companies.
History.com Staff (2009). History of Saint Patrick's Day. History.com. Accessed Feb 19, 2019 from https://css.history.com/topics/st-patricks-day/history-of-st-patricks-day
Beaulieu, David (2018). Difference between Irish Shamrocks and 4-Leaf Clovers. The Spruce. Retrieved Feb 18, 2019 from https://www.thespruce.com/irish-shamrocks-and-4-leaf-clovers-2130966
Waxman, Olivia (2017). How Green Became Associated With Saint Patrick's Day and All Things Irish. Time.com. Retrieved Feb 18, 2019 from http://time.com/4699771/green-irish-st-patricks-day-color/
Steady Serv (2018). Beer By the Numbers: Saint Patrick's Day 2016. Steady Serv website. Retrieved Feb 18, 2019 from https://steadyserv.com/blog/st-patricks-day-beer-facts/
Owen, James (2014). Did Saint Patrick Really Drive Snakes out of Ireland? National Geographic.com. Retrieved Feb 18, 2019 from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140315-saint-patricks-day-2014-snakes-ireland-nation/
Kiernan, John (2018). 2018 Saint Patricks Day Facts. Wallethib.com. Retrieved Feb 18, 2019 from https://wallethub.com/blog/st-patricks-day-facts/10960/
History.com Staff (2018). Saint Patrick. History.com. Accessed Feb 19, 2019 from https://www.history.com/topics/st-patricks-day/who-was-saint-patrick
Biography.com Staff (2018). Saint Patrick Biography. Biography.com. Accessed Feb 19, 2019 from https://www.biography.com/people/st-patrick-9434729.
Catholic Online (2017). Bet You Didn't Know These 10 Things About Saint Patrick and Ireland!. Catholic.org. Retrieved Feb 18, 2019 from https://www.catholic.org/news/saints/story.php?id=45045.
George Johnson (author) from San Antonio, TX on March 07, 2019:
Thanks for the comment Thelma. I hope to enjoy saint patty’s day in Ireland one day
Thelma Alberts from Germany on March 07, 2019:
I have lived and worked in Ireland for a few years. It was there that I have seen and enjoyed St. Patrick's Day. Thanks for sharing this article. Very interesting and very informative.
George Johnson (author) from San Antonio, TX on February 21, 2019:
I've heard the Guinness tour is a fun time. The shamrocks and green merchandise definitely play well wit the tourists but there is so much more to Ireland.
Liz Westwood from UK on February 20, 2019:
I have learned a lot from your article. A few years ago we visited Dublin. Amongst other things we did the Guinness tour, which was interesting. I also noticed that tourist shops were full of leprechaun souvenirs, shamrocks and a lot of green merchandise.
George Johnson (author) from San Antonio, TX on February 20, 2019:
Thank you for the feedback. I've always wanted to go to Ireland and this article makes me want to go even more.
Lorna Lamon on February 20, 2019:
I thoroughly enjoyed this article as I was born in Ireland and this is a very special day for me. I once spent St Patrick's Day in Washington DC and was amazed at the wonderful celebrations. Thank you for sharing.