St. Patrick’s Day History

St. Patrick’s Day 2022 will occur on Thursday, March 17th, in observance of the death of St. Patrick – the patron saint of Ireland.

It began as a religious feast day back in the 17th century and over time evolved into a variety of festivals spanning the globe to celebrate Irish culture with parades, special foods, music, dancing, and one whole lot of green everything.

St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, is one of the most widely known figures in Christianity. However, his life continues to remain somewhat of a mystery. So many of the traditional stories associated with St. Patrick, including the famous account of him banishing all the snakes from Ireland, are false, the product of hundreds of years of exaggerated storytelling.

But who was Saint Patrick?

We do know that St. Patrick was born in Britain to wealthy parents towards the end of the fourth century. It is believed they died on March 17, around 460 A.D. Although his father was a Christian deacon, it is said that he probably took the role because of tax incentives and no evidence exists that Patrick came from a particularly religious family. At age sixteen, Patrick was taken as a prisoner by Irish raiders while attacking his family’s estate. These raiders took him to Ireland where he was held in captivity for six years.

However, some dispute where his captivity took place. Many believe he was taken to live in Mount Slemish in County Antrim, however, he was most likely held in County Mayo near Killala.) Throughout this time, he worked as a shepherd in the remote outdoors. During this time as he was lonely and in fear, he turned to religion for solace and became a devout Christian with the dream of converting the Irish people to Christianity during his captivity.)

After spending over six years as a prisoner, Patrick made his escape. According to Patrick’s writing, a voice that he believed to be God’s, spoke to him in a dream, telling him he must leave Ireland.

Patrick walked almost two hundred miles from County Mayo to the Irish coast. After he escaped to Britain, Patrick explained that he had experienced another revelation wherein an angel in a dream told him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Not long after this, Patrick began religious training studying for over 15 years.

After being ordained as a priest, he was sent to Ireland with a double mission: to minister to Christians already living in Ireland and to begin to convert the Irish.

St. Patrick: Bonfires and Crosses

Patrick, familiar with the Irish language and culture, chose to incorporate traditional rituals into his lessons on 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.

Although there were a small number of Christians on the island when Patrick arrived, most Irish practiced a nature-based pagan religion. The Irish culture centered around a rich tradition of oral legend and myth. When this is considered, it is no surprise that the story of Patrick’s life became exaggerated over the centuries—spinning exciting tales to remember history has always been a part of the Irish way of life.

Growth of St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations

Over the next 35 years, Irish patriotism among American immigrants flourished, prompting the rise of so-called “Irish Aid” societies like the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society. Each group would hold annual parades featuring bagpipes (which actually first became popular in the Scottish and British armies) and drums.

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 3 million people line the 1.5-mile parade route to watch the procession, which takes more than five hours. Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Savannah also celebrate the day with parades involving between 10,000 and 20,000 participants each. In 2020, the New York City parade was one of the first major city events to be canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Green River Tradition

As Irish immigrants spread out over the United States, other cities developed their own traditions. One of these is Chicago’s annual dyeing of the Chicago River green. The practice started in 1962, when city pollution-control workers used dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges and realized that the green dye might provide a unique way to celebrate the holiday. That year, they released 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into the river–enough to keep it green for a week. Today, in order to minimize environmental damage, only 40 pounds of dye are used, and the river turns green for only several hours.

Although Chicago historians claim their city’s idea for a river of green was original, some natives of Savannah, Georgia (whose St. Patrick’s Day parade, the oldest in the nation, dates back to 1813) believe the idea originated in their town. They point out that, in 1961, a hotel restaurant manager named Tom Woolley convinced city officials to dye Savannah’s river green. The experiment didn’t exactly work as planned, and the water only took on a slight greenish hue. Savannah never attempted to dye its river again, but Woolley maintains (though others refute the claim) that he personally suggested the idea to Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley.

St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations Around the World

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 around the world in locations far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore, and Russia. Popular St. Patrick’s Day recipes include Irish soda bread, corned beef and cabbage, and champ. In the United States, people often wear green on St. Patrick’s Day.

In modern-day Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was traditionally been a religious occasion. In fact, up until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on March 17. Beginning in 1995, however, the Irish government began 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.

Information gathered from