St. Patrick Wasn’t Irish, But Neither Are St. Patrick’s Day Parades

St. Patrick was originally a Roman from 5th century southern Britain, and though Patrick himself was (or more accurately, became) religious, there’s not too much religion being celebrated amongst the St. Patrick’s Day green beer drinkers– a ritual which also isn’t Irish. So how did the religious feast of St. Patrick — a holy day of obligation in Ireland and a minor blip in the rest of the Catholic world — become St. Patrick’s Day, a major occasion for Irish good times, drinking, and fun?

St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, famous for the snakes episode (it’s claimed that he drove the snakes out of Ireland), and conversion of the Irish to Christianity, but Patrick wasn’t Irish. As the teenage son of a wealthy Roman-Briton family, he was kidnapped by pirates while swimming too far from shore and sold as a slave in Ireland. Sent to tend sheep in the remote mountains of Antrim, Patrick eventually gave in to the solitude, devoted himself to prayer, and became a Christian.

Legend has it that his new religious outlook didn’t reconcile him to his lot, however, and he made his escape back to Britain on a cargo ship carrying dogs. In the end, St. Patrick returned to Ireland as the new Bishop and set himself to converting the pagan Irish.

Fast forward 14 centuries to North America in the late 1800s, with its disenfranchised Irish immigrants whose conditions of life were often not very far removed from slavery.

Irish Immigrant Ship

“Characterized as drunken, violent, criminalized, and diseased, Irish-Americans were looking for ways to display their civic pride and the strength of their identity,” says Mike Cronin in a Zocalo Public Square article published in Time Magazine.

The Irish took to the streets in local assemblies, focused on their Catholic faith and Irish culture in the context of American patriotism; the movement quickly evolved into widespread St. Patrick’s Day celebration of all things green.

Nowadays, St. Patrick might find himself out of sympathy with the excessive celebrations of his feast day. In Chicago, the city dumps 40 pounds of powdered green vegetable dye into the river. In Boston, St. Patrick’s Day begins with a rowdy breakfast for politicians. At pubs around the world, customers drink gallons of green beer, 4.6 billion gets spent on green wigs, hats, glasses, makeu,p and leprechaun costumes, more than 13 million pints of Guinness (the famously Irish stout) are downed on St. Patrick’s Day, and hapless Irish trad groups find themselves playing endless jigs and reels from dawn to dusk.

Certainly revellers would find themselves out of sympathy with a non-Irish St Patrick. On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish and everywhere’s a party; St. Patrick and his mountain included!

[Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]