St. Patrick’s Day: A Brief History (and 3 Celebration Ideas)

Save the date white block calendar for St Patrick's Day, March 17, with Leprechaun hat, pot of gold, and rainbow, on green background.

In America, St. Patrick’s Day is often celebrated by default.

We wear green, we pinch people who don’t, and we don’t really know why we’re doing it. In fact, it’s fair to ask: what are we doing celebrating another country’s saint anyway?

But the history of the day is actually rich, and we would do well to know the past of the famous saint and his significance to the country of Ireland.

We’re going to walk through the history of St. Patrick and St. Patrick’s Day, and then we’ll discuss a few ideas for celebrating this year.

Save the date white block calendar for St Patrick's Day, March 17, with Leprechaun hat, pot of gold, and rainbow, on green background.

The History of St. Patrick

St. Patrick, possibly known as Palladius Patricius, grew up as a Roman in western Britain. The son of a civil servant, he was snatched away from his family by Irish raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland itself. Raiding was a popular pastime for some Irish islanders; since Roman Britain was a wealthy target—and slaves were the most sought-after commodity.

Patrick escaped slavery after six years in Ireland, made his way to the east coast, and found passage on a ship back to his home in Britain. However, at some point during his captivity, he had embraced Christianity wholeheartedly.

Back home, Patrick studied to become a priest. But he later wrote that Ireland, which was overwhelmingly pagan at the time, remained in his mind. In 431 or 432, he was sent back to Ireland as missionary by Pope Celestine. He was returning to the very land that had robbed him of time, safety, family, and freedom—willingly, this time around.

It’s difficult to know the exact extent of Patrick’s evangelistic impact on Ireland, but undoubtedly he was a dedicated and effective missionary. Within a single century of Patrick’s return to it, Ireland shifted from a pagan to Christian majority.

Why St. Patrick’s Day is Celebrated

So no, St. Patrick was not Irish—at least, not originally. The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day honors the Christianization of Ireland, and Patrick is widely held up as the greatest evangelist in the island’s history.

The day of celebration (March 17) corresponds to the supposed date of his death. Over time, the day has come to celebrate Irish culture in general.

Bonus Facts

  • The three-leaf clover (or commonly, shamrock) is a staple of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. The four-leaf clover is the one you’ve heard of as lucky, because it’s far rarer. But there are actually five-leaf clovers in nature, too, and in incredibly rare cases, clovers may have six or more leaves.
  • Ireland’s association with the color green probably began in the 17th century with the color’s use on a flag. But its popularity grew a century later when it became closely associated with Irish nationalism and a group who rebelled against British rule. There was also an “Order of St. Patrick” formed around that time, but the order adopted blue as its main color, leading to some associations between St. Patrick and the color blue.

3 Ideas for Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day This Year

As you know, St. Patrick’s Day is incredibly popular here in America, despite its distance from Ireland. This is largely because of the Irish diaspora that immigrated to North America over the centuries and carried the celebration of the day.

It’s a day that can be a lot of fun for anyone, anywhere. Not only that, but it’s a unique holiday in that it allows us to celebrate the heritage and culture of an entirely different country from our own, for the sheer joy of celebrating.

We can all enjoy the day, thankfully. Just be careful not to dip into stereotypes and caricatures.

Here are three celebration ideas for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day.

  1. Drowning the shamrock

    “Drowning the shamrock” simply means to put shamrock (a type of clover) in whatever beverage you’re drinking on St. Patrick’s Day. This is a traditional practice, and you can either consume the clover when you’re done with the drink or take it out and toss it over your shoulder. Either way, expect good luck to be knocking on your door soon.

  2. Read famous Irish literature

    If you haven’t seen the list of famous authors who were Irish (or at least born in Ireland), you might be blown away at the talent represented from one small island.

    James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, C.S. Lewis, Samuel Beckett, and George Bernard Shaw were some of the most prominent Irish authors. Why not celebrate Irish heritage in a less concentrated or frivolous way this year? Pick up a book by one of these guys, and you’ll be reading finer art than any green t-shirt could ever hope to attain to.

    One prominent Irish novel is Joyce’s Ulysses. Beware, though. I once heard of a man who made his daughter’s would-be husband read Moby Dick in order to prove his commitment and unwavering love. I’ll just say this—if he really wanted to make it hard for the guy, he should’ve chosen Ulysses.

  3. Playlist/Trivia/Movie

    Have friends and family over for an entirely Irish-themed night of fun. A quick Google search will help you find a mix of traditional Irish music, but be sure to look up articles on some of the emerging talent coming out of the country today. Brace yourselves: the new music probably won’t have any bagpipes or fiddles in it.

    Throw in a few famous Irish bands like U2 and The Cranberries and you’ll be good to go on the music.

    Next up is a trivia game. You can find a great list of questions and answers here (yeah, one person will have to know the answers this way).

    Finally, end the night on a relaxing note by watching a film straight from Ireland. Possible movies include My Left Foot and Once.

Conclusion

From history, to the unique celebration of a single country around the world, to modern twists and turns in what celebrations look like, St. Patrick’s Day has a lot wrapped up in it. In the end, we should take the time to honor another country and enjoy our time ourselves.

Stay safe everyone.


By Ryan Drawdy
March 17, 2017