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.