Who Was Ireland’s St. Patrick?

Why Was His Irish Holiday Invented in America?

Photo of Kelly R. Smith   by Kelly R. Smith

St. Patrick's Day Parade goers in traditional regalia
St. Patrick’s Day Parade goers in traditional regalia
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This article was updated on 03/17/21.

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St. Patrick’s day is one of two “foreign” beer holidays (not counting New Year’s Eve) that were actually invented here in the United States, not imported. The other, of course, is Cinco de Mayo, which celebrates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. Other holidays, such as Christmas, originate elsewhere but we excel at making our own.

Why, other than the green beer, is St. Patrick’s Day so popular? The last Census showed that 34.1 million Americans have Irish ancestry. That’s seven times the population of Ireland. Chances are that you’ve got a wee bit o’ the Celt in you. The coronavirus is not going to stop you from celebrating or quoting witty Irish proverbs, right?

Who was the Real St. Patrick?

Patrick was born not in Ireland, but in Britain into a Romanized family. At 16 years of age he was abducted by Irish raiders from his father’s villa. His abductor was Calpurnius who was a deacon and a minor local official. Patrick was carried off into slavery in Ireland. There he spent six bleak years there working as a herdsman, during which time he turned with fervor to his Christian faith. When he dreamt that the ship in which he was to escape was ready, he escaped from his master and found passage to England. There he approached starvation and endured another brief captivity before being reunited with his family. It is thought that after that he may have paid a short visit to the Continent.

The best known passage in the Confessio speaks of a dream, following his return to England, in which one Victoricus offered him a letter titled “The Voice of the Irish.” As he read it, he heard a company of Irish folk asking him to walk once more among them. “Deeply moved,” he says, “I could read no more.” Nevertheless, because of the brevity of his education, he was reluctant for a long time to answer the call. Even on the eve of re-embarkation to Ireland he was overwhelmed by doubts of his fitness for the task. Once there however, his hesitations vanished. Completely confident in the Lord, he wandered far and wide, baptizing and confirming with true zeal. In diplomatic fashion he brought gifts to a minor king here and a lawgiver there but accepted none from any.

Legends of St. Patrick

  • St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. In truth, Ireland never had snakes because they couldn’t get there for one reason or another. Other islands that don’t have snakes include New Zealand, Hawaii, Greenland, Iceland, and Antarctica. Scholars of Celtic history believe the snake story is an allegory for St. Patrick’s eradication of pagan ideology.
  • Patrick raised people from the dead. A 12th-century hagiography places this number at 33 men, some of whom are said to have been deceased for many years.
  • He enshrined the shamrock, which he used to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to the Irish. The shamrock represents three persons in one God, to an unbeliever by showing him the three-leaved plant with one stalk. Traditionally, Irishmen have worn shamrocks, the national flower of Ireland, in their lapels on St. Patrick’s Day.
  • He created the Celtic Cross which super-imposed a circle, representing the sun, onto the traditional crucifix in order to convert the Irish. There are many other competing theories as to the origin but this is as good as any.
A Celtic Cross
A Celtic Cross

St. Patrick’s Day is American?

Yes. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade happened not in Ireland but in the good old United States, that veritable melting pot. On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers who were serving in the English military marched through New York City. Along with their music, the parade helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots, as well as with fellow Irishmen serving in the English army.

The tradition has continued into the 21st century, and New York City’s parade is now the oldest and the largest parade in the county. The first celebratory parade held in Ireland was in 1931.

Today in New York City the parade numbers over 150,000 participants. Ever year, nearly 3 million people line up on the 1.5-mile parade route to view the procession, which takes more than five hours. Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Savannah join them in celebrating the Celtic day with parades involving between 10,000 and 20,000 participants each.

The Pubs in Ireland Used to Be Closed On St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is famous for the wearing of the green and drinking beer or stout, depending on where celebrants live. However, St. Patrick’s Day was strictly religious in Ireland during a large part of the 20th century, and pubs there were actually closed on March 17. It became a national holiday in Ireland in 1970, and the pubs opened to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by hoisting a glass in honor of the patron saint of Ireland.

According to a US Census, there are more Irish people in America than there are in Ireland. As of 2021, there are 32 million people in the United States that claim full or partial ancestry from Ireland.  This is a huge number compared to the 4.9 million who lived are currently living in Ireland today.

So who isn’t ready to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day even if it’s an American holiday? Chances are that a bit of you hails from Dublin, Galway, or County Clare. I’ll take any excuse to eat more potatoes.

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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