No doubt tranquil but rugged landscape and the colour green come to mind when talk turns to Ireland. However, the ‘Emerald Isle’ is also known for something less serene: The spirited, annual celebration of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17! Discover more about this cheerful holiday as we delve into the surprisingly sedate history, dearly held traditions and colourful customs of this much-loved Irish celebration.
Words: Shantini Suntharajah
The Patron Saint of Ireland
St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint and the day that is celebrated in his honour also marks the anniversary of his death.
Despite the fact that he is a well-known figure in Christianity, the details of St. Patrick’s life seem to have been lost in time. The few documents that do reveal anything about him read like an incredible tale of drama and intrigue, complete with a prison escape and celestial visions.
Although he is now irrevocably tied to Ireland, St. Patrick was actually born in Britain at the end of the 4th century. The story goes that when he was 16, Patrick was kidnapped and transported from Britain to Ireland by a group of Irish raiders who attacked his family estate. Lonely and terrified, Patrick sought comfort in prayer, becoming a devout Christian.
The young man spent six, long years in captivity. In his writings, he describes a voice – which he believes to be the voice of God – that instructed him to leave Ireland.
The experience gave him the courage to escape and walk more than 320 kms to the Irish coast before finding his way back to Britain where he experienced another revelation. This time, he dreamed of an angel telling him to return to Ireland as a Christian missionary.
After many years of training and religious study, Patrick became a priest and did just what the angel told him to do in his dream. He presumably spent the rest of his days preaching about Christianity and converting the Irish who were followers of a nature-based pagan religion at that time.
Traditions & Symbols
There is a whole list of traditions and symbols associated with St. Patrick’s Day, which make it one of the most unique – and fun – festivals in the world.
Perhaps the oldest is the Shamrock. Essentially a three-leaved clover, the Shamrock is a national, Irish emblem and legend has it that St. Patrick used it to describe the meaning of the Holy Trinity. He explained that just as the Shamrock is one leaf with three parts, God too is one entity with three entities – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Another popular and rather amusing symbol connected to St. Patrick’s Day is the legendary leprechaun. The word leprechaun is derived from the old Irish word lobaircin, which translates to ‘smallbodied fellow’. The ancient Celtics of Ireland believed leprechauns were extremely cranky, small, old-looking men who each owned a hidden pot of gold.
Originally, St. Patrick’s Day had nothing to do with leprechauns but when Walt Disney released a film about a cheerful, little Irish leprechaun in the late 1950s, Americans began associating the mythical creature with all things Irish, including St. Patrick’s Day.
If you were asked to represent St. Patrick’s Day with a colour, green comes to mind but there was a time when it was blue that symbolised this Irish holiday. Things changed in the 19th century when green came to signify Ireland, with the shade showcasing the gorgeous landscapes all year long; Ireland is also known as the land of ‘40 Shades of Green’. Wearing green is considered a tribute to Ireland and is believed to bring good luck on St. Patrick’s Day.
When it comes to traditional meals, cabbage and bacon are to St. Patrick’s’ Day what turkey is to Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, Irish immigrants in New York City began to replace bacon with corned beef. They learned this little money-saving trick from their Jewish neighbours. Now corned beef is commonly eaten as part of a St. Patrick’s Day meal, even in Ireland.
St. Paddy Around The World
There was a time when St. Patrick’s Day was less about fun and more about religious fervour. For centuries, the Irish marked the occasion by visiting churches in the morning for religious reflection. Up until the 1970s, pubs remained closed on the day.
Festivities took a spirited turn in the mid-90s when the Irish government decided to use St. Patrick’s Day to promote the country and celebrate all things Irish. The now enormously popular St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin was introduced in 1996 and every year, millions of visitors throng the event, which features concerts, fireworks and outdoor performances.
Over the years, the party vibe infected millions all over the world. These days everyone – including non-Christians and non-Irish – get swept up by the celebratory spirit.
In the US, it is said that the very first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world took place in 1762, when Irish soldiers who were serving in the English military, marched through the streets of New York. These days, the city’s parades involve thousands of participants with millions of people lining up to watch the procession. In Chicago, festivities take an unusual turn. The Chicago River is dyed green every year, a tradition that began in 1962.
In Florence, Italy, St. Patrick’s Day means it’s time for the Festa Irlandese, a 10-day event that focuses on Irish food and drink. The city erects a massive tent where thousands of participants flock to sample the Italian version of Irish favourites such as beef in stout.
Down Under, Australians turn the whole of March into party season with a full calendar of luncheons, balls, race days, golf tournaments and concerts mainly featuring Irish themes.
In the country where St. Patrick was born, celebrations revolve around Manchester city, which hosts a magnificent Irish Festival with festive green lights adorning the city’s Town Hall.
Over in Southeast Asia, Guinness Stout, the Irish original, is a hugely popular beer among pub regulars in Malaysia and Singapore. St. Patrick’s Day is a great excuse to guzzle down pints and pints of the dark brew with none of the guilt. Revelers dressed in green can be found soaking up the party atmosphere in pubs across the country and celebrations take on a high-shine with the annual black-tie ball organised by the St. Patrick’s Society in the state of Selangor, Malaysia, believed to be the largest annual Irish ball in the world outside the USA.
There’s no denying that St. Patrick’s Day is Ireland’s biggest and most beloved holiday. It is a one-of-a-kind celebration rooted in religious passion but which has grown to encompass spirited parties, unique customs and colourful carnivals around the world.
So it doesn’t matter if you’re in San Francisco or Singapore – you’re guaranteed to have a good time on St. Patrick’s Day!
Ireland’s Unforgettable Icons
Steeped in folklore and legends, blanketed by soft carpets of green and dotted with dramatic landscapes, Ireland is a fantastic holiday destination for just about everyone. Here’s a compilation of some of the Emerald Isle’s best and most beloved icons and hotspots.
This is a fairly recent Irish step-dancing phenomenon that entered global consciousness during a 1994 interval performance of the Eurovision Song Contest. The dance is renowned for its extremely rapid leg movements while the arms and torso are kept mostly stationary. More than just moving to the beat of the music, Riverdance celebrates the Irish culture and tells the story of Irish immigration to the US.
This is a World Heritage Site and undeniably among the top sights in Ireland. The Causeway’s basalt rock formations are about 55,000,000 years old and exhibit highly regular shapes – a rarity in nature. The rocks seem to stretch across to Scotland, and according to Irish lore, a giant called Finn MacCool put together this stunning sight so he could use it as a private bridge to cross the sea.
In a land of castles, Blarney is one of the oldest and most historic. Arguably the most famous tourist attraction in Ireland, Blarney Castle in Count Cook was once home to Dermot McCarthy, King of Munster. Three castles were built on the same site and the last one, which was constructed in 1446, still stands today. The world famous Blarney Stone, is embedded in the walls near the top of the castle. Legend has it that the Blarney Stone has the magical power to bequeath the gift of eloquence. You just have to kiss it while being held upside down by the ankles, a common practice in the past! Fortunately, visitors are now allowed to smooch the stone with their feet firmly on the ground.
There are a number of A-list celebrities who hail from Ireland. Iconic rock star and humanitarian Bono, front man of the legendary band U2, is a native of Ireland. So is Oscar winner Liam Neeson who has wowed movie fans with memorable roles in films like Schindler’s List, Star Wars and Taken. Other hunky Irish actors include Colin Farrell and dashing ex James Bond star Pierce Brosnan.
Irishman Arthur Guinness is the founder of Guinness Stout, one of the most popular beers in the world and renowned for its distinctive burnt flavour that comes from the use of roasted barley. Undeniably one of the most successful beer brands in history, Guinness was first made in a small brewery just outside Dublin in the 1750s and is recognised as the unofficial beer of Ireland. Although great as mood enhancers, beers are not known for their health benefits but studies have shown that moderate amounts of Guinness are actually good for the heart as it contains antioxidants!