St. Patrick’s Day is here! Typically, we associate the holiday with drinking, drinking, and drinking. Oh, and being Irish and green things.
But there’s a lot more to St. Patrick’s Day than most people know.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but here are 10 brutally honest facts about St. Patrick’s Day.
1. St. Patrick wasn’t Irish
Patrick is himself British, and historians believe he enjoyed a privileged upbringing in a aristocratic Christian family that owned a townhouse, a country villa, and plenty of slaves on the West coast of Britain.
But it is believed his family originally came from France or even Spain. Heck, even the Italians think he’s one of theirs.
So let’s get this straight then.. the one country he’s definitely not from out of the Six Nations is… Ireland.
Patrick was a real man who was born in around 385 AD and may have been named Maewyn Succat originally. Although his father was a Christian deacon, it has been suggested that he probably took on the role because of tax incentives and there is no evidence that Patrick came from a particularly religious family.
He was kidnapped by Irish raiders at the age of 16 and sold into slavery, eventually bought by Ulster Chieftain Milchu to tend his sheep on the slopes of Slemish, near Ballymena.
After more than six years as a prisoner, Patrick escaped. According to his writing, a voice—which he believed to be God’s—spoke to him in a dream, telling him it was time to leave Ireland. To do so, Patrick walked nearly 200 miles to the Irish coast.
After escaping to Britain, Patrick reported that he experienced a second revelation—an angel in a dream tells him to return to Ireland as a missionary.
Soon after, Patrick began religious training, a course of study that lasted more than 15 years, eventually becoming a Bishop – historians believe this may have been when he changed his name to Patrick.
After his ordination as a priest, he was sent to Ireland with a dual mission: to minister to Christians already living in Ireland and to begin to convert the Irish. Interestingly, this mission contradicts the widely held notion that Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland.
Patrick returned to Ulster and settled near Downpatrick where he was constantly being beaten by thugs and harassed by Irish royalty.
He spent the next 30 years establishing schools, churches, and monasteries across the country. Patrick was later appointed as successor to St Palladius, the first bishop of Ireland.
Today, St. Patrick’s grave stone can be viewed in the grounds of Down Anglican Cathedral in Downpatrick, Ulster… not far from where he built his first house of Christian worship in Saul, Co. Down.
2. St. Patrick’s color is blue
WE’VE BEEN LIVING A LIE. You might want to hold off on the green face paint this year.
The colour most closely associated with Patrick is BLUE, not green.
Yet in Chicago, thousands of people turn out to see the river being turned green, part of a tradition that only dates from 1962. The colouring process takes five hours and involves a mix of forty pounds of powdered green vegetable dye being tipped overboard a boat.
For many years green was considered unlucky and St. Patrick’s blue was considered symbolic of Ireland for many centuries and was the colour worn by knights in the Order of St. Patrick.
The Irish Presidential Standard is still blue, while the Irish Guards sport a plume of St Patrick’s blue in their bearskins.
Patrick’s flag is known as the “Cross of St Patrick” and is a red saltire on a white background, NOT as is commonly seen, a Tri-colour. His flag along with the Cross of St George and the Cross of St Andrew, form the Union Flag.
3. St. Patrick’s Day as we know it was invented in America by Protestants
It is usually assumed that Irish Catholics were the first to bring the traditions of St. Patrick’s day to America and were the first to hold parades on that day to celebrate their Irishness.
In 1737 the Charitable Irish Society was formed in Boston by Scots-Irish Ulster Presbyterian colonists. The Society was set up with the purpose to assist newly arriving fellow immigrants from Ireland in the traumatic process of settling in a strange new country.
In March 17th of that year they decided to mark St. Patrick’s day with a dinner at a local tavern followed by a modest parade through the streets. This was to be the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in America, and most likely the world.
It is often wrongly cited that the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York but the first records of celebrations for the Irish apostle in that city come from 1762 (25 years after the Boston event).
In 1766, the first proper St. Paddy’s day parade in New York was held when soldiers from the British Army’s Irish regiments met at the Crown & Thistle tavern in Manhattan, drank a toast to King George III and then paraded through New York with the “playing of fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable harmony.” before heading back to the pub for more drinks. These were Irish Protestant soldiers, as Catholics were forbidden from joining the army until 1778.
Also in 1766 the New York Gazette reported on a notable March 17th celebration at the house of a gentleman by the name of Mr. Bardin. Among the toasts raised on the evening were; “The prosperity of Ireland!”, “Success to the Sons Of Liberty in America!” and “The glorious memory of King William of Orange!”.
In Montreal, the St. Patrick’s Society was born in the city, it’s membership was overwhelmingly Protestant, and held their first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1824. In 1856, many of the members left and formed the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society.
A earlier recorded celebration of St Patrick’s Day in Canada was in 1759, again by Irish Protestant soldiers serving with the British army, this was following their conquest of part of New France, a French colony in North America.
The first parade in Ireland didn’t take place until 1903 in Waterford. The first parade in Dublin didn’t take place until 1931!
4. March 17th is the day Patrick died.
Saint Patrick’s Day takes place every year on 17th March, which is said to be his date of death in 461 AD. It was traditionally, and still is officially, a feast day when Christians in Ireland celebrated Saint Patrick.
The image of Patrick we are so familiar with is the creation of myth, legend and tradition – there is no evidence he wore a mitre (hat) or carried a staff. And they certainly weren’t green and gold.
5. He didn’t bring Christianity to Ireland.
In 431, before Patrick began preaching in Ireland, Pope Celestine reportedly sent a bishop known as Palladius “to the Irish believing in Christ”—an indication that some residents of the Emerald Isle had already converted by then.
So Christianity was already existed Ireland, but Patrick was tasked with spreading the Gospel by educating and dispatching his own missionary corps.
At that time, the main religion of Ulster was Druidism. Familiar with the Irish language and culture, Patrick chose to incorporate traditional ritual into his lessons of Christianity instead of attempting to eradicate native Irish beliefs.
For instance, he used bonfires to celebrate Easter since the Irish were used to honoring their gods with fire.
He also superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross, so that veneration of the symbol would seem more natural to the Irish.
The shamrock was not the symbol of St Patrick. He used the Shamrock to highlight the Christian belief of ‘three persons in the one God’. Although there’s nothing uniquely Irish about shamrocks as most clover species can be found throughout Europe.
Good Luck finding a Four Leaf Clover by the way! Your odds of finding a four-leaf clover are slim to none. 1 in 10,000 to be exact.
6. He’s not actually a saint.
He may be known as the patron saint of Ireland, but Patrick was never actually canonized by the Catholic Church.
This is simply due to the era he lived in. During the first millennium, there was no formal canonization process in the Catholic Church.
The Roman Catholic church itself didn’t even exist until the Great Schism of 1054, when Christianity itself split into the modern-day Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox church. So he wasn’t considered what we now know as Roman Catholic during his lifetime either.
After becoming a priest and helping to spread Christianity throughout Ireland, Patrick was likely proclaimed a saint by popular acclaim.
7. St. Patrick didn’t drive all the snakes from Ireland.
Among the legends associated with St. Patrick is that he stood atop an Irish hillside and banished snakes from Ireland—prompting all serpents to slither away into the sea.
While it’s true that the Emerald Isle is mercifully snake-free, chances are that’s been the case throughout human history.
There are no signs of snakes in the country’s fossil record.
Water has surrounded Ireland since the end of the last glacial period, preventing snakes from slithering over; before that, it was blanketed in ice and too chilly for the cold-blooded creatures.
The “banishing of the snakes” was really a metaphor for the eradication of pagan ideology from Ireland and the triumph of Christianity. Within 200 years of Patrick’s arrival, Ireland was completely Christianized.
8. St. Patrick’s Day used to be a dry holiday.
Since 1631, St. Patrick’s Day has been a religious feast day to commemorate the anniversary of the 5th-century death of the missionary credited with spreading Christianity to Ireland.
For several centuries, March 17 was a day of solemnity in Ireland with Catholics attending church in the morning and partaking of modest feasts in the afternoon.
There were no parades and certainly no emerald-tinted food products, particularly since blue, not green, was the traditional color associated with Ireland’s patron saint prior to the 1798 Irish Rebellion.
While St. Patrick’s Day evolved in the 20th century into a party day for Americans of all ethnicities, the celebration in Ireland remained solemn.
The Connaught Telegraph reported of Ireland’s commemorations on March 17, 1952: “St. Patrick’s Day was very much like any other day, only duller.”
For decades, Irish laws prohibited pubs from opening on holy days such as March 17.
Until 1961, the only legal place to get a drink in the Irish capital on St. Patrick’s Day was the Royal Dublin Dog Show, which naturally attracted those with only a passing canine interest.
The party atmosphere only spread to Ireland after the arrival of television when the Irish could see all the fun being had across the ocean.
Modern Ireland took a cue from America with the multi-day St. Patrick’s Day Festival in Dublin only launching in 1996, with the Irish adopting traditions from across the pond…….even though St Patrick never drank green beer.
It’s estimated that the average worldwide bar tab on St. Patrick’s Day runs up to about $245 million annually.
9. Corned beef and cabbage – blah!!
Corned beef and cabbage isn’t a traditional Irish dish. It’s just about a s Irish as spaghetti and meatballs. You’re better off sticking to Guinness.
On St. Patrick’s Day, countless merrymakers in the United States, Canada and elsewhere savor copious plates of corned beef and cabbage – an American innovation!
While ham and cabbage were eaten in Ireland, corned beef offered a cheaper substitute for impoverished Irish-Americans living in the slums of lower Manhattan.
In the late 19th century and early 20th, when ships came into South Street Seaport, many immigrants would run down to the port hoping there was leftover salted beef they could get from the ship’s cook for a penny a pound.
The Irish would boil the beef three times—the last time with cabbage—to remove some of the brine.
10. Is Irish-America more Protestant than Catholic?
The population of Ireland is about 4.2. million. In contrast, there are around 34 MILLION people of Irish descent living in America.
Another common misconception today is that Irish-Americans are predominately Catholic.
This is an easy assumption to make as in the last 160 years the overwhelming majority of Irish immigrants to the USA have indeed been Catholic.
But in fact more than half of the 40 million Americans who claim Irish heritage are Protestant in faith. One of the main factors for this is that in the colonial period 30 percent of all immigrants from Europe arriving between 1700 and 1820 came from Ireland and the great majority of those were Presbyterians from Ulster.
To give perspective on this; in 1790, when Fr. John Carroll was ordained as the first Roman Catholic bishop of the USA, there were approx 30,000 practising Catholics (around 1% of the population) and 22 priests in the new United States. This number represented Catholics of all nationalities (English, Irish, Dutch, German etc.).
At the same time there were around 200 practising Presbyterian ministers from Ulster alone and an estimated 250,000 Scots-Irish.
Although they didn’t come in numbers as huge as the later Catholic wave of immigration the descendants of these early Scots-Irish arrivals have been multiplying ever since.
A study in the 1970’s showed that 83% of Irish-American Protestants have been in America for four generations or more compared to only 41% of Irish-American Catholics.
Saint Patrick’s story is essentially an Ulster story.