The Real History of St. Patrick’s Day and Tips for Celebrating the Irish Way

People everywhere celebrate St. Patrick’s Day — in fact, it’s the one day out of the year when Irish culture is celebrated around the globe (wild misconceptions about and misrepresentation of said culture notwithstanding). Why is March 17 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 auspices of a holiday. (Getting totally drunk on a random weekday afternoon? That’s not cool. Getting wasted at 4 p.m. on on St. Patrick’s Day? Good stuff, chap!)

But what is the real story behind St. Patrick’s Day? And why has it become so inextricably associated with heavy consumption of alcohol?

Let’s start with the man himself …

Who Was Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick

As far as we know, the individual venerated today 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 in his youth. In his teenage years, Patrick, who was from a wealthy family, was captured by pirates and brought to Ireland under duress. Rome never conquered or colonized Ireland, the inhabitants of which were still Celtic pagans. Young Patrick was enslaved by said Celts for more than half a decade, during which 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 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 even exist? Probably. More evidence points toward his historicity than toward him being merely mythical, though most of the stuff for which he is famous is surely a tall-tale.

When Were the First St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations?

St. Patrick's Day Celebrations

The Feast of Saint Patrick is held on March 17 because that is the accepted day of Patrick’s death. The date became an official Christian “feast day” in the 1600s, but remained obscure for many decades, passing with little fanfare and devoid of the traditions with which it is now associated.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in America, however, took place in the year 1762 when Irish soldiers (and a number of hangers-on) trod festively through New York City. As it happens, 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 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 opportunity to be in Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day, don’t miss it.

Why Do We Drink On Saint Patrick’s Day?

Guinness

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. Keep in mind that there are more people of Irish descent living in America (33 million) than there are Irish people in Ireland (five million), so many “Irish” traditions aren’t originally even from Ireland

The boozing has less to do with Irish heritage than it does with the fact that the Catholic church typically relaxed the restrictions of Lent on St. Patrick’s Day, so everyone who had 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!

What’s Up With the Leprechauns and Shamrocks?

shamrocks st patrick's day

Leprechauns have been a part of Irish folklore for more than a thousand years, with tales of these diminutive sprites traced back as far as the 8th century. Traditionally, a leprechaun was described as a cobbler who would generally keep to himself and ply his lucrative shoe-making and mending trade in private, jealously guarding his worldly assets, which has come to be depicted as the pot of gold. If captured by a human, a leprechaun would grant three wishes to secure his release, though these would often backfire on the person making the wishes,with their intentions being twisted in some nefarious way. There was really never any direct association between leprechauns and St. Patrick until the modern era, when people forged the connection between two previously unrelated, but unmistakably Irish phenomena.

Now shamrocks? Those do have a strong St. Patrick connection. It’s said that St. Pat often incorporated the ubiquitous three-leafed sprig of clover into his sermons, using the three leaves of the shamrock as a visual reference to the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The word shamrock simply means “small clover,” and does not refer to the rare four-leafed clover at all. The four-leaf variety is no more a symbol of Ireland or St. Patrick than the more common three-leaf shamrock. As for the expression “Luck of the Irish,” that is yet another thing we got not from Ireland, but from America. The expression was used in regards to Irish and Irish-American prospectors who seemed disproportionately successful at finding gold and silver during the rush years of the mid-19th century.

What To Say and What Not to Say on St. Patrick’s Day

real history of st patricks day patrick lead

According to two men who know a thing or two about Ireland, a lot of us have it all wrong in terms of St. Patrick’s Day lingo. Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry are the Irishmen behind the Dead Rabbit, a New York City bar that has been called a “world’s best” more than once and, as such, they have been around a St. Patrick’s Day celebration or two (or dozens). Their first piece of advice is to get the name of the damn holiday right.

“Irish people hate it when people around the world say ‘St. Patty’s Day.’ Say ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ or ‘Paddy’s Day,’” Muldoon and McGarry agree.

As for “top o’ the morning to ya,” that phrase will ne’er be heard from a true Irishman’s lips. Instead, try “What’s the craic?” which means “What’s goin’ on?” and “That’s grand,” which means, well, “That’s fine/good.”

Also, if you happen to be in NYC on St. Patrick’s Day 2018, do stop by the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog bar (30 Water Street NY, NY 10004) in your finest awful orange wig and big green top hat. If you’re willing to hand over that ridiculous apparel, the boys from the Dead Rabbit will give you a shot of Bushmills Irish whiskey for the trade. Here’s an insider tip: Ask for Bushmills Red Bush which is aged in used bourbon casks and sips like some miraculous blend of Irish and American whiskey that makes a fitting libation for a holiday that is, after all, as much an American phenomenon as it is a traditional Irish holiday.

And if you’re looking for something green to wear to avoid being pinched, check out our guide to all the green gear for St. Patrick’s Day this year.