Shamrocks, leprechauns and gallons of Guinness – St Patrick’s Day is nearly here. But why has this saint’s day become so popular? And who was Saint Patrick?
Well, it may surprise you to hear that Saint Patrick (or Padraig to use the Irish spelling) wasn’t actually Irish. He’s believed to have been born to Roman parents, in Scotland or Wales, in the fifth century AD. At the age of 16, Patrick was captured and taken to Ireland to live as a slave. For six years, he herded sheep on Slemish Mountain, until he managed to escape and flee Ireland. A dream led Patrick to dedicate his life to converting people to Christianity. He returned to Ireland and began to spread his message. Today, St Patrick is regarded as the founder of Christianity in Ireland.
It’s believed that St Patrick’s Day was first celebrated back in the 17th century. Held to mark St Patrick’s death, it was a humble, religious celebration up until the 1920s. An annual military parade started in Dublin in 1931, but the day remained mainly a time for religious reflection, rather than painting oneself green and donning a funny hat. Bars were even closed on St Patrick’s Day, as a mark of respect, right up until the 1960s.
Across the pond, in America, it was a different matter. There St Patrick’s Day became a day for Irish immigrants to celebrate their heritage. By the mid-19th century, parades and festivities were being held in major cities across the US. According to author and university professor Mike Cronin, ‘St. Patrick’s Day was a public declaration of a hybrid identity—a belief in the future of Ireland as a nation free from British rule, and a strict adherence to the values and liberties that the U.S. offered them.’
In the 20th century, corporations started to pay attention, and figure out how to take advantage of the celebrations. Pretty soon,
T-shirts with embroidered shamrocks, inflatable bottles of Guinness, and even green McDonald’s milkshakes, started to become synonymous with St Patrick’s Day, at least in America.
As with most American exports, some of these products have now become popular in the UK (though not, thankfully, green milkshakes), and in other countries across the globe. St Patrick’s Day is now celebrated in pubs, shops and student halls across the world. This year, Greening the City will see iconic landmarks across Ireland, from Trinity College, to Donegal Castle, go green on 17th March.
If you’re lucky enough to be heading to Ireland for St Patrick’s Day this year, you’ll certainly have plenty of choices for where to celebrate.
By Kate Duggan