In Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day began in the 17th century as a feast to commemorate the death of Saint Patrick in the fifth century. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is credited with converting Ireland to Christianity, and, although he was never canonized by a Catholic pope, the Vatican did recognize Saint Patrick’s Day as a holiday in 1631.
Born in the village of Bannavem Taburniae — not in Ireland but likely on the Southwest coast of Britain — Patrick, the son of Calphurnius, a deacon from a prominent Roman family, was thought to be named Maewyn Succat (the spelling varies). Patrick is the English form of the Latin name Patricius, which he adopted when he joined the priesthood.
At age 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold to a chieftain in Ireland, where he spent six years as a shepherd and adopted the Christian faith. He began having visions of converting the children of pagan Ireland to Christianity, and, in 408, he also had a dream prompting him to escape his enslavement. He did escape and ultimately entered the priesthood, being ordained around 418 and named a bishop in 432.
Patrick incorporated some pagan traditions into church practices. Many believe that he introduced the Celtic cross, which combines the Christian cross with a circular symbol of sun worship. He also is known to have used the shamrock, or three-leaf clover, to explain the Holy Trinity. While these legends are probably true, the story of Saint Patrick driving all the snakes off the Emerald Isle is not. There never were any snakes in Ireland. More likely, the story is an allegory about banishing paganism.
The first known celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day took place in Boston in 1737. Irish soldiers serving in the British Army are thought to have held the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City in 1762. In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day did not become a national holiday until 1904. A typical celebration featured morning mass, a military parade, and an austere meal of Irish bacon and cabbage at home. Until the 1960s, pubs remained closed for the holiday. Now Ireland holds a four-day festival to mark the occasion. Even the parades now held in Ireland draw inspiration from Colonial America.
What once was an austere religious holiday in Ireland has turned into a global party. But what is not likely to be found on the Emerald Isle, even on St. Patrick’s Day? Green beer. Irish natives generally prefer a plain pint of Guinness.