A look at the history of St. Patrick’s Day.

The Life of St. Patrick

The patron saint of Ireland was actually born in Britain to a wealthy family at the end of the 4th century. Although St. Patrick’s father was a deacon, his family was not overtly religious. His father most likely chose his profession for tax incentives. At the age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders who had besieged his family’s estate. He spent six years in captivity in Ireland as a shepherd. During this time, he took solace in his religion. One day, he heard the voice of God telling him it was time to escape Ireland and go home. He walked nearly 200 miles to the Irish coast, where a ship was about to sail to Britain. Sometime after he reached his native shores, an angel in a dream told him to become a missionary and to go back to Ireland. He began religious studies and was ordained a priest after fifteen years. Then he sailed back to Ireland with a mission to minister to the few Christians there and to make converts of others.

At that time, Ireland was mostly a pagan country. St. Patrick used the Irish pagan traditions in bringing Christianity into the lives of the Irish people. The bonfires made to honor the pagan gods became an element of the celebration of Easter. The Celtic cross originated when St. Patrick added the sun, a revered Irish symbol, encircling the center of the Christian cross.

St. Patrick may or may not have used the three-leaf clover to demonstrate the concept of the Holy Trinity. Another widespread belief is that St. Patrick went to the top of a hill, now known as Croagh Patrick, and with a simple wooden staff he banished all the snakes from Ireland. In truth, no snakes have ever inhabited the country. The story stands as a metaphor for the destruction of pagan ideology and the rise of Christianity in Ireland.

His mission in Ireland lasted thirty years, over which time St. Patrick established hundreds of churches and made thousands of converts. It is believed that St. Patrick died on March 17, c. 460 AD. In the Catholic Church, March 17 is the feast day of St. Patrick, but it has also come to be a day on which people pay tribute to their Irish heritage.

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day is observed as a religious holiday in Ireland. Since March 17 falls during the season of Lent, Catholic Irish families attend church in the morning. In the afternoon, Lenten observations are temporarily waived so people can freely hold festivities and feast on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage.

Until the 1970s, laws decreed that all pubs had to close down on St. Patrick’s Day. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Ireland has enticed millions of tourists from all over the world to come to the annual St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin. Over six days, the city offers traditional Irish food, green beer, parades, concerts, outdoor theater productions, a treasure hunt, and a fireworks extravaganza.

The Irish American holiday

In 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York to celebrate the feast day of St. Patrick and to display their Irish pride. Thereafter, Irish aid societies began to hold annual St. Patrick’s Day parades in an effort to unite all Irish immigrants. Bagpipes and drums accompanied the marchers, reminding them of their native country. Today, the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York is the largest in the United States, with over 75 floats and 150,000 participants. The parade route is one and a half miles long; and the entire parade lasts over five hours.

In Chicago, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated by turning the Chicago River green. This became an annual tradition beginning in 1962, when city pollution-control workers used various dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges in the river. They decided to unload a hundred pounds of green dye into the river for St. Patrick’s Day. The river stayed green for a week. Today, due to environmental concerns, only 40 pounds of green dye are deposited into the river so the green color lasts for only a few hours.

The tradition of eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day started at the turn of the 20th century, when Irish immigrants living in the Lower East Side of New York City were too poor to afford Irish bacon to go along with their fried cabbage. Instead, they boiled corned beef, which they learned about from the Jewish immigrants living in the same neighborhood.

For more information on St. Patrick and the history of St. Patrick’s Day, please visit www.historychannel.com/exhibits/stpatricksday/main.html.

For more information on the annual St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin, please visit www.stpatricksday.ie/cms.

For a recipe for Irish bacon and cabbage, please visit www.foodireland.com/recipes/meat/fried_bacon.htm.