How did this happen? How did excessive drinking become connected with an Irish saint’s day?
Information about St. Patrick, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, is probably more legendary than factual, but historical consensus is that he was originally British and was taken to Ireland as a slave. He escaped, returned to Britain, became a Christian cleric in France, and then was called, in the religious sense, to drive the snakes out of Ireland and convert the pagan people to Christianity. Scientists insist there weren’t any reptiles there anyway, because the frigid Irish Sea prevented their migration to the island. Others say that the story is meant to be a parable: snakes are symbolic of evil in Christianity, so Patrick was ridding the island of evil influences by converting the Irish from polytheism. All I know is that there are still no snakes in Ireland, making it an excellent place to live.
It’s also interesting that there is no official record of Patrick having been formally canonized by the Catholic Church, which didn’t begin keeping records of them until the 12th century. One source says that prior to that, people were named saints “by popular acclaim” for their good works. Whatever the case, Patrick is not only a saint, and has been for a very long time, he is also the Patron Saint of Ireland. The Church lists March 17 as his feast day, which has been celebrated for centuries. March 17 was chosen because that date is reputed to be the day Patrick died in 461. It could also have been chosen because the Spring Equinox, a pagan holiday, falls around March 21; perhaps the Church scheduled its holy day a few days earlier to beat the pagans to the punch.
The shamrock, a type of clover with three leaves, is also associated with St. Patrick. Sacred to the Druids because three was a mystical number, legend has it that he cleverly adopted the little plant as a way of explaining to the Irish the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity. (A four-leaf clover, just a shamrock with an extra leaf, is considered lucky because it’s rare.)
More esoteric is a plant native to the Middle East but known as Bells-of-Ireland. It grows in stalks with little clustered, solid green, bell-shaped blossoms. Most likely the color accounts for its name, because like the shamrock, the color has also become a symbol of Ireland. In the 1700s, shamrocks were symbols worn by the rebels fighting the British; they risked death by hanging by doing so. From this came the expression “the wearin’ of the green,” which is absolutely de rigueur on March 17.
It’s believed that St. Patrick’s feast day became one of “too much fun” because it falls during Lent, when Christians fast for 40 days. With the people accustomed to celebrating the Spring Equinox in March, the Church decided to suspend the restrictions for one day, with unexpected consequences. Once the cork was out of the jug, the inevitable happened, and over time, overindulgence became the norm. Maybe this is where the word “crocked” came from.
Irish immigrants naturally took their customs with them wherever they went, especially to America, where ironically, the first Irish immigrants were largely Protestants fleeing religious persecution, and for them St. Patrick’s Day was not a church occasion. For them, the day was a celebration of Irish traditions and culture, and this gave rise to the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Establishing the date and place of the first one is a challenge - several cities claim the honor - but it’s generally agreed that it began in America. Recently, a scholar uncovered a record of a parade in St. Augustine in 1601, organized by an Irish vicar named Richard Arthur. This is probably being hotly disputed, since Boston has long claimed that its celebration was the first in 1737. The first recorded parade in New York City was held in 1766, organized by British soldiers, a fact that must irritate Irish patriots everywhere. As more Irish immigrated, the parades spread. Savannah, Ga., held the first parade outside the northeast in 1824 and still has the second largest parade in the country. The first parade was not held in Ireland until 1903! Today, March 17 is an official holiday in Ireland, drawing visitors from around the world to the parade in Dublin.
It is possible to celebrate the day less exuberantly, taking advantage of programs featuring Irish music and dancing: think Riverdance. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it on Netflix or YouTube. Locally, Rock City becomes Shamrock City, with everything Irish: music, jig lessons, food, dance performances, specialty beer, even the High Falls flowing green. Other celebrations are being planned, including a St. Chatty’s Day Parade, a block party at the Honest Pint, and several family-fun events.
The Irish, like all immigrant groups, have contributed immensely to the development, growth, and wonderfully diverse culture that makes up America today. They’re a proud people, and rightly so, even if they’re thought to be a bit too quick to fight and a bit too fond of the drink. There’s an old joke about a fella who sees a bar fight break out and asks, “Is this a private fight, or can anybody get in?”
Writer G.K. Chesterton, called the Prince of Paradox, may have described them best:
For the Great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.
Ah, it’s a divine madness then.
No wonder they have their own holy day.
by Carol Lannon