Have you ever wondered who Saint Patrick was? He lived during the fifth century, and is the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland. He had quite the journey! He was born in Roman Britain and was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16. He escaped, but returned to Ireland and was credited with bringing Christianity to its people. In the centuries following Patrick’s death (believed to have been on March 17, 461), the mythology surrounding his life became ever more ingrained in the Irish culture: Perhaps the most well known legend is that he explained the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) using the three leaves of a native Irish clover, the shamrock.
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17 and is the saint’s religious feast day. The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. On St. Patrick’s Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived and people would dance, drink and feast–on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage – most of this tradition has lived on! (Not sure where the corned beef came from…)
Even though the people in Ireland have been observing the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick on March 17 since the 9th or 10th century, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the first parade held to honor St. Patrick’s Day took place not in Ireland but in the United States. On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City. Along with their music, the parade helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots, as well as with fellow Irishmen serving in the English army.
Over the next 35 years, Irish patriotism among American immigrants flourished, prompting the rise of “Irish Aid” societies like the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society. Each group would hold annual parades featuring bagpipes (which actually first became popular in the Scottish and British armies, but don’t tell the Irish!) and drums. In 1848, several New York Irish Aid societies decided to unite their parades to form one official New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Today, that parade is the world ‘s oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States, with over 150,000 participants. Each year, nearly 3 million people line the 1.5-mile parade route to watch the procession, which takes more than five hours. Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Savannah also celebrate the day with parades involving between 10,000 and 20,000 participants each. Stamford holds it’s own parade changing the center line down the road to a lovely kelly green.
Up until the mid-19th century, most Irish immigrants in America were members of the Protestant middle class. When the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, close to 1 million poor Irish Catholics began pouring into America to escape starvation. Despised for their alien religious beliefs and unfamiliar accents by the American Protestant majority, the immigrants had trouble finding even menial jobs. When Irish Americans in the country’s cities took to the streets on St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate their heritage, newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys.
The American Irish soon began to realize, however, that their large and growing numbers endowed them with a political power that had yet to be exploited. They started to organize, and their voting block, known as the “green machine,” became an important swing vote for political hopefuls. Suddenly, annual St. Patrick’s Day parades became a show of strength for Irish Americans, as well as a must-attend event for a slew of political candidates. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman attended New York City ‘s St. Patrick’s Day parade, a proud moment for the many Irish Americans whose ancestors had to fight stereotypes and racial prejudice to find acceptance in the New World.
Today, people of all backgrounds celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, especially throughout the United States, Canada and Australia. Although North America is home to the largest productions, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in many other locations far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore and Russia.
Did you know that up until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on March 17? This is because the day was a religious occasion. That changed and beginning in 1995 the Irish government began a national campaign to use interest in St. Patrick’s Day to drive tourism and showcase Ireland and Irish culture to the rest of the world. Today, approximately 1 million people annually take part in Ireland ‘s St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin, a multi-day celebration featuring parades, concerts, outdoor theater productions and fireworks shows.
Wishing you all, no matter your nationality, a Happy St Patrick’s Day and the “Luck of the Irish”!