A brief history of Saint Patrick’s Day
Chelsea Mancilla, Guest Writer
St. Patrick’s Day celebrates the Roman Catholic feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. It may surprise you that St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish. His name wasn’t Patrick either—it was Maewyn Succat, and he is not technically a canonized saint by the Catholic Church. Born in the late 4th century, Succat was the son of an early Christian Deacon. At 16 years old, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates, and sold into slavery in Northeastern Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd for six years. Patrick actually had many monikers throughout his life: he was known by many as Magonus, by others as Succetus, and to some as Cothirthiacus. Although he escaped enslavement, he returned to Ireland in the year 432, with a mission to convert the Irish to Christianity.
Despite the traumatic experience, St. Patrick demonstrated forgiveness, compassion, and perseverance when he returned to Ireland. The Irish were predominantly pagan and druidic at the time. St. Patrick met resistance and hostility towards Christianity, but eventually he gained followers and spread the religion throughout the mainland. By the time of his death on March 17, 461, he had established monasteries, churches, and schools. Many legends grew up around him—for example, he drove the snakes out of Ireland and used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. Ireland came to celebrate his day with religious services and feasts.
It was emigrants, particularly in the United States, who transformed St. Patrick’s Day into a largely secular holiday of revelry and celebration of things Irish. Up until the mid-19th century, most Irish immigrants in America were members of the Protestant middle class. When the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, close to one million poor and uneducated Irish Catholics poured into America to escape starvation. Despised for their alien religious beliefs and unfamiliar accents by the American Protestant majority, the immigrants had trouble finding even menial jobs. When Irish-Americans in the country’s cities took to the streets on St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate their heritage, newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys.
Cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants realized that their large and growing numbers endowed them with a political power that had yet to be exploited. They started to organize, and their voting bloc, known as the “green machine,” became an important swing vote for political hopefuls. Suddenly, annual St. Patrick’s Day parades became a show of strength for Irish-Americans, as well as a must-attend event for a slew of political candidates. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman attended New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, a proud moment for the many Irish-Americans, whose ancestors had to fight stereotypes and racial prejudice to find acceptance in the New World.
The first parade held to honor St. Patrick’s Day took place not in Ireland, but in the United States. Boston held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, followed by New York City in 1762. Since 1962, Chicago has colored its river green to mark the holiday (although blue was the color traditionally associated with St. Patrick, green is now commonly connected with the day). Irish and non-Irish alike commonly participate in the “wearing of the green”—sporting an item of green clothing or a shamrock, the Irish national plant, in the lapel. Corned beef and cabbage are associated with the holiday, and even beer is sometimes dyed green to celebrate the day. Although some of these practices eventually were adopted by the Irish themselves, they did so largely for the benefit of tourism.
In 1848, several New York Irish Aid societies decided to unite their parades to form one official New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Today, that parade is the world’s oldest civilian parade, and the largest in the United States, with over 150,000 participants. Each year, nearly three million people line the 1.5 mile parade route to watch the procession, which takes more than five hours. Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Savannah, Ga. also celebrate the day with parades involving between 10,000 and 20,000 participants each.
Today, people of all backgrounds celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, especially throughout the United States, Canada, and Australia. Although North America is home to the largest productions, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in many other locations far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore, and Russia.
In modern-day Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has traditionally been a religious occasion. In fact, until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on March 17. Beginning in 1995, however, the Irish government launched a national campaign to use interest in St. Patrick’s Day to drive tourism and showcase Ireland and Irish culture to the rest of the world. Today, approximately one million people annually take part in Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin, a multi-day celebration featuring parades, concerts, outdoor theater productions, and fireworks shows.