Tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, and here with a post about the day and why we celebrate it, is my lovely husband Ian, who works as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide.
Around the world, 17th March is one of the year’s biggest celebrations, and it’s all thanks to the Irish. The day is their most important national festival and it’s a time for everyone (Irish or not) to dress in green, get together, sing, dance and, of course, enjoy a pint of Guinness. But although the modern celebration is known as a huge party with everyone invited, its origins, as the name suggests, are religious. It is the traditional feast day of Ireland’s Patron Saint and for centuries was a day of prayer and contemplation.
So who was St Patrick and why was he important? Like many early saints, his origins are somewhat obscure and clouded in legend, but it is generally accepted that Patrick lived in the 4th to 5th Centuries AD and was born in Britain, with modern Scotland the most likely location. Most stories of his life tell us that he first went to Ireland after being captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16. During his captivity, he became a Christian and studied to become a Priest after he escaped back to Britain. Returning to Ireland as a missionary, he played a major part in strengthening and expanding the Christian community in the country and became one of Ireland’s first bishops.
Out of all the legends associated with him, there are two that are particularly famous. The first is that he used the three leaves of the shamrock, a common plant in Ireland, to teach people about the Christian holy trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The idea was one plant but three distinct leaves, just like one god with three distinct forms. The shamrock became one of the symbols associated with Saint Patrick, and as his importance as a revered figure in Ireland grew, the emblem was adopted by the country itself, which it remains to this day. The plant’s green colour also became recognised as the national colour of Ireland. The second legend is more of a myth, namely that Saint Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland. While it is true that there are no snakes native to the country, scientists are fairly certain that this was the case many thousands of years before Saint Patrick stepped ashore. The story is more likely to symbolise his missionary work, bringing a new faith and strengthening the Christian church, banishing “primitive” beliefs and helping people feel more secure in their community.
After his death, Patrick was venerated as a Saint by Irish Christians, although this status was not officially confirmed for many centuries. His feast day, which falls on the date of his death, was set aside to remember his life and works. Over time, especially as Ireland became politically and culturally dominated by Britain, Saint Patrick took on a different status, as a symbol of the Irish nation and traditions, and this was really how his feast day started to become secularised as it is today. Celebrations that we recognise today – parades, festivals of music and dance, wearing the shamrock symbol – increasingly established themselves.
These days, the day is essentially about celebrating Irish identity, and has been strengthened as Irish people have migrated throughout the world, taking their culture, traditions and festivals with them. While Dublin has the largest St Patrick’s Day festivities in the world, next come New York and Birmingham, as Irish immigrant communities everywhere have ensured that the day is marked in style. It is not a public holiday, so the major events generally take place on the closest weekend to 17th March. Cynics might say the date has become little more than a marketing tool for Guinness and other Irish drinks manufacturers, but there is no doubting the joy and pride that is so obviously on display wherever Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated. And the best thing of all – you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy it.