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Shamrock | © Public Domain Pictures
Shamrock | © Public Domain Pictures
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11 Surprising Facts About St Patrick's Day You Never Knew

Picture of Kate Phelan
Updated: 13 March 2017
Although celebrated around the world, St Patrick’s Day still has some mysteries up its sleeve. Read on to discover a few things you might not already know about the feast day of Ireland’s main patron saint.

St Patrick wasn’t Irish

Although he is its best-known patron saint, Saint Patrick wasn’t actually from Ireland. Born in Roman Britain, he was kidnapped by a band of Irish pirates at the age of 16, and brought to Ireland as a slave. He later escaped back to England, but according to The Confession of Saint Patrick, he had a vision in which he was urged to return to the Irish as a missionary.

St Patrick Preaching to the Kings
St Patrick Preaching to the Kings | © Andreas F. Borchert/WikiCommons

His robes were actually blue, not green

The colour green has become a key part of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day. The city of Chicago dyes an entire river green in honour of Saint Patrick on March 17th, while in Dublin, green lights illuminate historic buildings. However, it’s been pointed out that the colour originally associated with St Patrick was blue – there’s even a shade officially known as St Patrick’s blue. Green became more strongly associated with Ireland during the country’s struggle for independence.

St Patrick’s Day Parade, 2016
St Patrick’s Day Parade, 2016 | © William Murphy/Flickr

He didn’t banish any snakes

One of the most famous legends associated with Saint Patrick is that he banished snakes from Ireland. However, Irish fossil experts have confirmed that there were never any legless reptiles in the country in the first place. Like many humans, they most likely wouldn’t have been able to abide ancient Ireland’s climate.

Pubs used to close on St Patrick’s Day

It might be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when all the pubs in Ireland were closed on St Patrick’s Day by law. The legal requirement was introduced by James O’Mara, the same MP who introduced the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act 1903, first making the day into a national holiday in Ireland. The law, meant as a mark of religious respect, was only repealed during the 1970s.

Pub
Pub | © Pixabay

It’s a holy day of obligation for Catholics

Relatedly, St Patrick’s Day is also a holy day of obligation for members of the Roman Catholic Church, meaning they are supposed to attend mass at some point during the day. Traditionally, these holy feast days were intended to be spent in reflection and prayer, and definitely not in the pub.

Sculptures adorning an Irish church
Sculptures adorning an Irish church | © Pixabay

But it’s a break from Lent

Even when Ireland had a higher mass attendance rate than it does now, Catholics were given a reprieve from the customs associated with Lent – such as fasting – on St Patrick’s Day. As it falls on a Friday this year, Catholic leaders in the US have given their permission for those who observe the custom of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent to partake in the traditional American St Patrick’s Day meal of corned beef and cabbage.

Corned beef and cabbage
Corned beef and cabbage | © Jeff Kubina/Flickr

The first St Patrick’s Day parade took place in America, not Ireland

The world’s first recorded St Patrick’s Day parade occurred in New York City, not Ireland. It was held in the 1760s and organised by Irish soldiers in the British Army. The first Irish parade didn’t happen until 1903, the year James O’Mara’s bill passed creating the official national holiday. Ireland’s first St Patrick’s parade took place in Waterford.

St Patrick’s Day Parade, Fifth Avenue, New York 1909
St Patrick’s Day Parade, Fifth Avenue, New York 1909 | © Bain News Service/WikiCommons

There’s no real evidence St Patrick used shamrock in his teachings

Although it’s widely believed that Saint Patrick used the three-leaved shamrock to describe the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there’s no written mention of his having done so until as late as the 1600s, and it’s thought to be a myth. Wearing shamrock on your lapel – and later ‘drowning’ it in a beverage – became a St Patrick’s Day tradition at the end of the 17th century. The shamrock later became a national emblem during Ireland’s fight for independence and is often confused with a four-leaf clover – most recently on Donald Trump’s St Patrick’s Day hats.

Shamrock
Shamrock | © Public Domain Pictures

The shamrock brought to the White House every year is most likely destroyed

The tradition of Irish government leaders presenting the US President with a bowl of shamrock at the White House on St Patrick’s Day goes back to the 1950s. But we’ve only recently been enlightened as to where all that shamrock goes after the ceremony. In 2010, a CNN story revealed that ‘any food, drink or plant presented to the president has to be handled pursuant to Secret Service policy’, which means destroyed.

White House fountain dyed green for Saint Patrick’s Day 2011
White House fountain dyed green for Saint Patrick’s Day 2011 | © White House/ Chuck Kennedy/WikiCommons

It’s even celebrated in outer space

St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in countries across the globe, and even in lower orbit. It’s been marked several times on NASA’s International Space Station, most recently by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who filmed himself singing Danny Boy on St Patrick’s Day 2013. In 2011, astronaut Cady Coleman played a flute in the satellite to honour the occasion.

St Patrick isn’t Ireland’s only patron saint

Although he is the saint most commonly linked with the country, Saint Patrick isn’t the only Irish patron saint. When he died – apparently on March 17, 461 – Saint Patrick is said to have been buried in Downpatrick, with the remains of Saint Brigid and Saint Columba, Ireland’s other patron saints, later joining his.

The reputed burial place of St Patrick
The reputed burial place of St Patrick | © Michael Kooiman/WikiCommons