Today, the 17th of March, is St Patrick’s Day, a popular day of celebration around the world, with many traditions and folklore now intertwined.

Some of us may know that it originally relates to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. He is held to be largely responsible for bringing Christianity to Ireland in the 4th century AD, and has many legends associated with him.

But in modern times, the day is more about celebrating all things Irish – culture, music and conviviality – celebrating "the craic" all around the world, with beer drinking, parades, music, dancing and singing in pubs around the world - and wearing something green, of course!

Whilst much of the history of St. Patrick himself is unknown, here are some interesting facts you may not know about the St. Patrick’s Day traditions:

The Real St. Patrick Was Born in Britain not Ireland ...

Patrick's real name was probably Maewyn Succat and he was born in Britain, possibly Wales, in 386AD. His father was a Roman-British army officer and a deacon of the church. But the young Patrick was not a believer in Christianity.1

He was kidnapped and taken to Ireland

At age 16, Patrick was kidnapped, along with many others, by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. According to his autobiographical Confessio, which survives to this day, the next six years were spent as a herdsmen of sheep and pigs.

During this period, he became increasingly religious and thought his imprisonment was a punishment for his lack of faith.

He eventually managed to stow away on a boat back to his family in Britain.
However, he was inspired him to return to Ireland as a priest, after training for some years as a missionary in France. He then changed his name to Patrick and began spreading the message of Christianity, baptising people and establishing monasteries, schools and churches as he went. By the time he died, on 17 March 461 (or possibly 493), he left behind a well organised church, strongly entrenched in that faith. 1

St. Patrick didn’t really drive all the snakes out of Ireland….

Among the legends associated with St. Patrick is that he banished all the snakes from Ireland, sending them slithering into the sea. However, research suggests snakes never occupied the Emerald Isle in the first place. There are no signs of snakes in the country’s fossil record, and water has surrounded Ireland since the last glacial period. Before that, the region was covered in ice and would have been too cold for the reptiles to survive.2

Patrick was never formally made a saint

Patrick was never formally canonised, having lived prior to the current laws of the Catholic Church in these matters. Nevertheless, he is venerated as a Saint in the Catholic Church and in the Eastern Orthodox Church.3.

His image appears in artworks and stained glass windows around the world.

St. Patrick wore blue, not green...

Saint Patrick didn’t wear green. His colour was “Saint Patrick’s blue,” as depicted in the earliest known picture of St. Patrick, below.

Credit: The Huntington Museum: the earliest known image 

The use of the colour green in celebrations came much later.....

The colour green became associated with St. Patrick’s Day after it was linked to the Irish independence movement in the late 18th century.3

People now go to enormous lengths to get into the “green” spirit, dressing up, wearing leprechaun hats, dyeing their hair and faces, and drinking green beer! In Chicago, the River Kelly (below) is dyed green. 4 The vegetable dye lasts for around five hours, and apparently does no harm to the river wildlife.

The shamrock is closely associated with St. Patrick.....

The shamrock, a three-leaf clover, has been associated with Ireland for centuries and is it’s National Flower. It was called the “seamroy” by the Celts and was considered a sacred plant that symbolized the arrival of spring. According to legend, St. Patrick used the plant as a visual guide when explaining the Holy Trinity, three persons in one God.

By the 17th century, the shamrock had become a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism.2

To this day, around St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish taoiseach, (prime minister), presents the U.S. president with a crystal bowl of live shamrocks as a symbol of the close ties between the two countries after the large Irish emigration to the USA in years past.4

St Patrick’s Day parades were an American institution...

While people in Ireland had celebrated St. Patrick’s Feast Day since the 1600s, the tradition of a St. Patrick’s Day parade began in America on March 17, 1601 in St. Augustine, Florida.

More than a century later, homesick Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched in Boston and in New York City on March 17, in 1737. Enthusiasm for the St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York City, Boston and other early American cities grew from there.2

Corned Beef and Cabbage was also an American invention....

The meal that became a St. Patrick’s Day staple — corned beef and cabbage — also began in America. While ham and cabbage were often eaten in Ireland, corned beef offered a cheaper substitute for impoverished immigrants in Manhattan.2

Despite the name, there isn’t any corn in corned beef. The name is a reference to the large grains of salt historically used to cure meats, which were known as “corns.” 3 Irish-Americans living in the slums of lower Manhattan in the late 19th century and early 20th would boil the beef three times — the last time with cabbage — to remove some of the brine (salt). 2

Credit: No plate like home.com

Leprechauns are also associated with St. Patricks Day.....

The red-haired, green-clothed Leprechaun (pronounced “lep-ra-corn”) are a big part of Irish floklore and are also commonly associated with St. Patrick’s Day. The original Irish name for these figures of folklore is “lobaircin," meaning “small-bodied fellow.”

Belief in leprechauns likely stems from Celtic belief in fairies — tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. In Celtic folktales, leprechauns were cranky souls, responsible for mending the shoes of the other fairies.2

Is St. Patrick's Day a tradition where you live? Will you celebrate St. Patrick's Day?

If you would like to read more about the life of St. Patrick, please click here.

Footnotes

With thanks to:

  1. Irish Genealogy toolkit.com
  2. History.com
  3. Wikipedia
  4. World Strides.com