Saint Patrick’s Day de-brief


Stained glass image of Saint Patrick at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in Waupun, WI.

Peter Laning, Writer, Podcaster

Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations across the United States are being canceled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our urban centers.  This past week alone, parades in New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Milwaukee, New Orleans, the Twin Cities, and Des Moines (to name a few) have either been called off or postponed to later dates. This of course comes on the heels of announcements from the NBA, NHL, MLB, and NCAA that their seasons would also be canceled or delayed. 

So now that we all have a wee bit o’ extra time on our hands, why not grab a glass of Guinness, a platter of corned beef and cabbage, don a bit of green, and learn a little bit more about the cultural phenomenon that is Saint Patrick’s Day. 

The holiday as we know it has been over a millennium in the making.  Believe it or not, there hasn’t always been large parades with marching bands, bagpipes, and massive floats.  And on top of this, Saint Patrick has never officially been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, making him subject to much discussion and controversy.  There are few sources available on the life of Saint Patrick (some of which are contradictory to each other), but let’s try and set the record straight. 

The man himself – born to Romano-British aristocrats as Maewyn Succat in 386 Anno Domini – was raised a Christian, though he was not an active believer.  By his own account, he was captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16 from his homeland in Roman Britannia and forced into slavery across the Irish Sea where he worked as a shepherd for six years, before making his escape. It was during this time in Ireland that he grew in his relationship with God and was able to fully convert to the faith he had been raised with. 

After returning home, Patrick continued in his studies of the Christian faith and was ordained a Priest, choosing for himself the Latin name Patricius (in English, Patrick).  Several years after that, he claimed to hear a voice –the Voice of the Irish – who cried out to him, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”  

It is at this point in Patrick’s life that legends become boundless.  It is said that he landed at County Wicklow (south of Dublin), where he was poorly received.  He was then forced to sail a little further north to friendlier waters.  Once establishing himself and the church on the Emerald Isle, the legends continue.   

During the course of his work as the Bishop of Ireland, he worked tirelessly to evangelize the polytheistic inhabitants of Ireland.  From this period come two legends.  The first is the use of the shamrock (no, not the shake from McDonald’s) to demonstrate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  The three leaves represent the three persons in one God: the Father (Patris), the Son (Filii), and the Holy Spirit (Spiritus Sancti).   

The second legend deals directly with the expulsion of snakes from Ireland.  During a forty-day fast on an Irish hilltop, Saint Patrick was set upon by a number of snakes who were (along with the rest of their kin) banished completely from the island.  Modern evidence tells us that snakes have never lived in Ireland (at least in the post-glacial period) and that the “snakes” Saint Patrick wished to banish were the native Celts. 

 By the time of his death around 461, Patrick had supposedly baptized thousands of Ireland’s pagan inhabitants into the Christian faith.  Because of his work, he was canonized (not by the Pope) and his feast day is celebrated annually on March 17, though celebrations vary around the globe.  Until recently, his feast day in Ireland was typically observed as a purely religious holiday.  Faithful Irish Catholics would be obligated to attend a Mass service (this is called a Holy Day of Obligation) and fast for the day in honor of Saint Patrick.  Because of the religious significance of the day, it should not come as much of a surprise that the first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Ireland was not held until 1903 (in Waterford). 

In the United States, it is Boston and New York that claim to have the oldest Saint Patrick’s Day Parades and celebrations in the country.  In fact, both are incorrect.  While they have had continuously running celebrations since the 18th Century, it was in St. Augustine, Spanish Florida that they very first celebrations of Saint Patrick occurred in 1600 and 1601.  Thus, the Spanish in Florida hold the distinction of hosting the first ever Saint Patrick’s Day parade in the world.   

It wasn’t until over a century later that Boston and New York City would begin their first official celebrations.  Boston, in a show of solidarity with its new Irish residents would hold the first Saint Patrick’s Day celebration in 1737.  New York City, 25 years later, would hold the first parade when Irish members of the British army marched through Bowling Green (Manhattan) in honor of their Patron Saint in 1762.  In an unfortunate turn of events, 2020 marks the first time since the 18th Century that NYC has canceled the parade (which has a runtime of around 5 hours). 

In the following century, a surge of Irish immigrants to the United States brought forth new traditions to the holiday.  For many Irish-Americans, corned beef with cabbage became a staple food and now is considered to be a “true” Irish dish.  While it is true that Irish-Americans (like my family, from Co. Cork) did consume corned beef as a substitute for bacon – which they could not afford – it has since made its way into our hearts and minds as a “true” Irish meal. 

But that is now by-the-by.  With roughly 33 million Americans (around 10.1%) who claim Irish ancestry, does it really matter where the first celebrations were held and what food the Irish actually ate?  On Saint Patrick’s Day, you can go practically anywhere and find green beer, Guinness, Jameson, “Irish” food, and a whole bunch of people wearing fifty shades of green. 

So here’s to Saint Patrick, to Ireland, and to you.  Be proud!  Be Irish (even if you’re not)!