The Real History of St. Patrick’s Day
People everywhere celebrate St. Patrick’s Day; in fact, it’s arguably the one day out of the year when Irish culture is (horribly misconstrued and then) celebrated all around the globe. Why is March 17th such an annual to-do? Well, because people like to get drunk. And they like doing so all the more when their inebriation comes under the ostensible sanctions of a holiday. (Totally drunk on a random Wednesday afternoon? Not cool. Wasted on St. Patrick’s Day? Good stuff!)
But what is the real story of St. Patrick’s Day? Why has it become so indivisibly associated with heavy consumption of alcohol? Who was this Saint Patty, anyway? And are those Chaser hangover “cure” pills still around? (No, they’re not, by the way. The secret is and always was water, my friend. Hydration.)
Let’s start with the man himself…
Who Was Saint Patrick?
As far as we know, the individual today venerated as the patron saint of Ireland was born in present-day England sometime in the late 4th century. He would have been raised in the Roman tradition, which by that time had embraced Christianity, but scholars believe that Patrick was not a believer when in his youth. In his teenage years, Patrick, who was from a wealthy family, was captured by pirates and brought to Ireland under duress. The Romans never conquered or colonized Ireland, the inhabitants of which were still Celtic pagans; young St. Patrick was enslaved by Celts for more than half a decade, during which time he fully embraced the Christian teachings of his childhood.
He escaped and returned to England, where he devoted himself to the study and practice of religion. Reportedly inspired by spiritual visions, he later returned to Ireland as a missionary, successfully converting droves of Celts during some three decades of preaching. Did he really banish all the snakes from Ireland? No. Did his walking stick grow roots and become a living tree? Not likely. Did St. Patrick really exist? Probably, actually. More evidence points toward his historicity than toward him being merely mythical, though most of the stuff for which he is famous is surely tall tale.
When Were the First St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations?
The Feast of Saint Patrick is held on March 17th because that is the accepted day of Patrick’s death. The date became an official Christian “feast day” in the 1600s, but remained rather obscure for many decades, passing with little fanfare and devoid of the many traditions with which it is now associated.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in America took place in the year 1762, when Irish soldiers (and a number of hangers-on) trod festively through New York City. For the first few centuries after the celebration was officially recognized by the church, St. Patrick’s Day was a bigger deal in countries outside of Ireland than it was at home, with Irish ex-pats and non-Irish alike reveling on a day that was largely unremarkable on the Emerald Isle. There was not an official St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland until 1903, in fact! In 1996, Ireland began to hold an official, national St. Patrick’s Festival. It started out as a one-day thing and has now grown to a five day party. If you ever have the chance to be in Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day, take it.
Why Do We Drink On Saint Patrick’s Day?
The association between an Irishman’s affinity for strong drink and the heavy drinking that takes place on St. Patrick’s Day isn’t all that fair; in fact, most pubs in Ireland were closed on St. Patrick’s Day well into the 20th century, seeing that the date is a national holiday there. (And keep in mind that there are more people of Irish descent living in America than there are Irish people in Ireland.)
The boozing has more to do with the fact that the church relaxes the restrictions of Lent on St. Patrick’s Day, so everyone who has given up alcohol (and most types of meat and various other generally enjoyable things) in Lenten penance made up for lost time by getting sloshed. Gotta love those loopholes!
So, now you know a bit of background about the holiday, you’ll be able to wax poetic after guzzling that gallon of green beer. May the luck of the Irish be with you!