The man who became Saint Patrick, the patron of Ireland, was born around 385AD in Britain. His given name was Maewyn. Kidnapped at the age of 16 and sold into slavery, it was here that he learned of Christianity. After six years he escaped from his captors and went to Gaul where he studied to become a priest. Feeling that it was his calling to end paganism, so he left for Ireland to spread Christianity. After his death which is believed to have been on March 17, 461, a religious feast day was started to celebrate him which has through time become St. Patrick’s Day as we all know it. Millions of people worldwide celebrate this day with festivals, parades, good food and of course beer. However, how many people don’t know the reasons why they wear green or eat corned beef and cabbage. Surprisingly, most of the beloved traditions were born outside of Ireland with America leading the way. So, which ones are American and which are Irish? Let’s take a short trip and find out.
Wearing or displaying a shamrock is by far the most notable symbol of the holiday. They were considered in Ireland to be sacred because they symbolized the rebirth of spring. Saint Patrick also used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity while spreading the gospel in Ireland. By the seventeenth century it came to symbolize Irish national pride when the English began to take their land, stifle their language, and stop Catholicism. Thus, the shamrock is universally accepted as the symbol for St. Patrick’s Day.
These mythical little men were more of an American addition. Irish folklore said they were the shoemakers of the faeries. These cranky, unfriendly, and aloof shoemakers were paid in gold for their services and miserly hid it away. They had no ties to St. Patrick’s Day until 1959 when Walt Disney released a film called “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” which portrayed them as friendly and lovable folk. This lead to Americans adopting them as a symbol of the Irish.
Green which symbolizes the beginning of spring is an American idea since Ireland is known as the “Emerald Isle” because of the year round lush green landscapes. Most people in Ireland wear green, white and orange representing their national colors on St. Patrick’s Day. The color traditionally associated with Saint Patrick was blue not green since Irish beliefs were that green was unlucky.
Fun Fact: Since 1962 Chicago has been dying the Chicago river green.
Corned beef, cabbage and beer
This is a tradition for both countries although in Ireland they use salted pork (similar to ham). It was Irish immigrants in America who used corned beef as a substitute because it was cheaper. Cabbage has long been considered an Irish food staple. Beer was a traditional Irish drink; however, in Ireland one would be hard pressed to find a pub serving green beer, an American creation.
Fun fact: Until 1970 all pubs in Ireland were required to close as a sign of respect for this religious holiday.
This is a tradition of Irish folklore. According to legend, Saint Patrick drove all of the snakes from the island. Since Ireland never had any indigenous snakes this is widely believed to be a symbol of his efforts to convert the pagans to Christianity.
Although parades are common worldwide, credit for the first parade goes to America. It was in 1762 that a group of Irish men in the British Colonial Army led a parade through the streets of New York ending at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The first official parade in Ireland was in 1931. Not to be outdone Dublin’s festival now last for four days and has grown into the largest parade in the world.
Fun Fact: Ireland also is home to the world’s shortest parade. It goes for about 100 yards from one pub to another in the city of Dripsey.
Although this day has always been a religious holiday in Ireland where most people will be attending church on the seventeenth, in America very few will be observing this day as a religious event. After all this is a celebration of the life of Saint Patrick who brought about the religious change in Ireland. He was credited with bring the gospel as well as the written word to Ireland.
Completely Irish, many people in Ireland participate in these annual treasure hunts. More a scavenger hunt than actually digging for gold, these are very popular during the Dublin four day festival for St. Patrick’s day.
Although you have come up with their own traditions and family practices for St. Patrick’s Day, I hope that this has entertained and educated you to some of the more familiar ones.
Ireland Board of Tourism