The history of St Patrick’s Day

  • 15 March 2015 | Sarah Came

St Patrick's Day in Dublin, Ireland. Image courtesy of LenDog64

For most of us, if you know about St Patrick’s Day you know it as an excuse to wear terrible green outfits and drink, but the feast of St Patrick, or Lá Fheile Pádraig in Irish Gaelic, is a festival with cultural, ethnic and religious significance held annually on March 17.

March 17 was officially recognised as the Festival of St Patrick by the Irish Government in 1995. The government declared the holiday as a day to celebrate Ireland as a country, and its people’s heritage, achievements and creativity.

A stained glass image of St Patrick. Image courtesy of Andreas F. Borchert

However, the festival has existed since long before this time, having been declared a Christian feast day in the early 1600s to commemorate the death of St Patrick, the saint traditionally credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland (or at least popularising it).

Saint Patrick was born to a well-off family in Roman Britain, but was captured and made a slave by a band of Irish raiders at the age of 16. While kept in slavery, Patrick turned to his religion for solace and became an increasingly devout Christian.

After about six years, Patrick escaped and fled to Roman Britain, but was visited by an angel in a dream and told to return to Ireland and spread the message of Christianity. Following 15 years of religious study, Patrick did so, using his knowledge of the native language and customs to help make Christianity more attractive to the Irish people.

For example, he celebrated Easter with fire, as the native Irish were accustomed to worshipping their gods with fire. He also superimposed the circular symbol of the sun (sacred to the Irish) over the symbol of the cross to create the Celtic cross, and he famously used the three-leaved shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit but one God) to the Irish.

It is estimated that early Christians began celebrating the festival of St Patrick as early as the ninth or tenth century.

St Patrick’s Day may have gained its reputation for being a celebration of eating and drinking in excess because, although the holiday falls during the Christian period of Lent, when consumption of meat and alcohol was forbidden, these prohibitions were lifted for the duration of the Feast of St Patrick. Although, up until as recently as the 1970s, pubs in Ireland were shut on St Patrick’s Day because it is a Christian holiday.

Although it is an Irish holiday, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated across the globe, and the New York City St Patrick’s Day Parade, first held in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English military based in New York marched through the city, is now said to be the oldest civilian parade in the world.

If you are interested in celebrating this holiday in your establishment, be sure to have plenty of Irish beers, stouts, ales and whiskeys to drink, and the traditional corned beef and cabbage to eat.