Although he is the island’s best-known patron saint, Saint Patrick wasn’t actually from Ireland. Born around 385AD in Roman Britain, he was kidnapped by a band of Irish pirates at the age of 16, and brought to Ireland as a slave. Patrick 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.
The colour green has become a key part of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day. The city of Chicago dyes an entire river green to honour the day, 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.
According to legend, Saint Patrick is the reason that there are no snakes in Ireland, having banished them into the sea. Although it’s a good story, unfortunately Irish fossil experts have confirmed that there were never any legless reptiles in the country in the first place. Like many humans, it’s likely that they wouldn’t have been able to abide ancient Ireland’s climate. It’s widely believed that this legend is a metaphor for Patrick driving out pagan druids when he established Christianity in the country.
It’s difficult 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 politician who introduced the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act 1903, first making the day into a national holiday in Ireland. Originally meant as a mark of religious respect, it wasn’t until the 1970s that is was repealed and revellers could raise a glass to Saint Patrick.
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.
Having a feast day in the middle of Lent isn’t ideal, given one of its customs is fasting. Thankfully, Catholics have traditionally been given a reprieve on St Patrick’s Day. In the years the day falls on a Friday, Catholic leaders in the US have give 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.
It turns out St Patrick’s Day parades are as Irish as the man himself, with the first parade taking place in New York City, not Ireland. It was held in the 1760s and organised by Irish soldiers in the British Army. Ireland’s first parades didn’t happen until 1903, in Waterford, the year James O’Mara’s bill passed and created the official national holiday.
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.
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. However, it’s recently come to light 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.
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.
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.