St. Patrick – More Than Just a Drunken Holiday

St. Patrick’s day is a holiday celebrated around the world with Irish music, whiskey, and lots of green. The holiday usually signals the imminent arrival of spring and is often celebrated raucously with parades and drunken bar crawls. However, many of the people who participate in the festivities of this holiday don’t even know how it originated. When asked, many revelers will say that its a holiday for an Irish Catholic guy and something to do with clovers and snakes.

“The modern celebration of St. Patrick’s Day really has almost nothing to do with the real man,”- Philip Freeman

St. Patrick:

Lets start at the top. St. Patrick himself was actually not Irish. He was actually born in Britain to a well-to-do Roman family. He was kidnapped at 16 and sold as a slave in Ireland, spending years tending sheep in the countryside. According to legend, he was converted to Christianity there and became a fervent believer. He heard a voice one night telling him to escape his slavery, he did, and returned to England where he was reunited with his family.  He was ordained by a Bishop in Britain before returning to Ireland as a missionary. He died in Ireland on March 17, 461, after many trials and hardships during his missionary work. Although he was largely forgotten after his death, over time the mythology around him grew until he became the Patron Saint of Ireland in 600.


The Shamrock:

The overwhelming theme of St. Patrick’s day celebrations is the shamrock, as revelers wear them on their clothes and drown them in their beers. The four leaf clover is often seen as a good luck charm, as it is rare amongst the 3-leaf variety, but is not the true symbol of the day. According to legend, St. Patrick used the 3-leaf clover to teach about the Holy Trinity during his missionary work in Ireland. However there actually is no evidence of St. Patrick ever doing that. In fact, the wearing of clovers began in the 17th century as Irishmen and women wore shamrocks on their coats and placed it in their whiskey before drinking it at the end of the day. The wearing of the shamrock was a symbol of pride in their Irish heritage as the English began seizing land and ruling over the Irish people. Unfortunately, the shamrock is not a purely Irish plant, and can be found throughout Europe.


According to one legend St. Patrick stood atop a hill, now called Croagh Patrick, with only a wooden staff and banisned all the snakes from Ireland. Another says St. Patrick was fasting when he was attacked by snakes, so he chased them into the sea. Since snakes traditionally represent evil in religious texts, especially the bible, the story took root amongst new converts. And while it is true that there are no snakes on the island, there were never any to begin with. The Irish sea is much too cold for snakes to migrate from neighboring islands.



Leprechauns are figures from Celtic folklore. Celtic tales are full of tiny fairies with magical powers, that could choose whether to use their powers for good or evil. Leprechauns were represented as cranky fairies, tricksters and pranksters that were always out to protect their treasure. They were often shoemakers and cobblers, drinking and smoking and mending the shoes of other fairies. Today they are seen as drunken little men garbed in green with rosy red cheeks and bright red hair.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

Corned Beef and Cabbage:

The classic St. Patrick’s Day meal is actually an American-made dish. Irish immigrants in New York City in the early 19th century were often poor. Corned beef was the most affordable meat available, and was substituted for Irish bacon which was much more expensive. Cabbage, on the other hand, has always been an Irish food, but again, more so because it is a cheap spring vegetable than for any religious or holiday significance.

American Celebrations:
St. Patrick’s Day was originally celebrated only as a religious holiday in Ireland, but came to America with Irish immigrants in the 1700s. People would go to church, the priest would acknowledge the holiday and speak about St. Patrick, and then people would go home and celebrate with a big meal with family. However, in 1737, the Charitable Irish Society of Boston put on a feast and religious service to celebrate Irish culture. This was the first larger celebration of the holiday in the American colonies. In 1762, New York City hosted the first St. Patrick’s Day parade, put on by a group of Irish soldiers in the British Military. The holiday then began to be celebrated with banquets in clubs in all of the major cities in the new American colonies, with parades becoming more and more common as a show of pride in Irish heritage.
By the 19th century, parades and celebrations were flourishing and everyone was celebrating their Irish communities by wearing green and participating in the festivities. In Chicago, where a large portion of the population can trace roots to Irish heritage, they have been dyeing part of the river green since 1962. The dye is a closely guarded secret, but the environmental impact is minimal and the river stays green for only a few hours. Celebrations and festivities in honor of St. Patrick and Irish American Heritage can be found in nearly every city in America now, with parades, shamrocks, and lots of Guinness.


“I see a woman may be made a fool, If she had not a spirit to resist.” William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew