March 15 2021

Why do the Irish celebrate St. Patricks' Day?

St. Patrick’s Day observes of the death of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. While St. Patrick’s Day is now associated with wearing green, parades (when people can get together!) and beer. The earliest known celebration was held on 17 March 1631, marking the anniversary of the death of St. Patrick in the 5th century.

Patron Saint of Ireland

Historians generally believe that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was born in Wales (not Ireland!) near the end of the 4th century. At the age of 16 he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold as a slave to a Celtic priest in Northern Ireland. He “found God” during his six years as a shepherd but eventually managed to escape back to Britain. He returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary.


Among the legends associated with St. Patrick is that he stood on an Irish hillside and banished snakes from Ireland—prompting all snakes to slither away into the sea. Research suggests snakes never occupied the Emerald Isle in the first place. There are no signs of snakes in the country’s fossil record. And water has surrounded Ireland since the last glacial period. Before that, the region was covered in ice and would have been too cold for the reptiles. More likely is that it is an allegory for Patrick's efforts to convert the Irish to Christianity and the snakes symbolise the pagan druids that he drove out of Ireland.


The red-haired, green-clothed Leprechaun is commonly associated with St. Patrick’s Day. The original Irish name for these figures of folklore is “lobaircin,” meaning “small-bodied fellow.” Belief in leprechauns probably comes from the Celtic belief in fairies— tiny men and women who could use their magical powers for good or evil. In Celtic stories, leprechauns were cranky and clever little guys, who fixed the shoes of the other fairies. The legend goes that if you manage to catch a leprechaun, you may be able to get his pot of gold hidden at the end of the rainbow. However, they are tricky little fellows!


The shamrock, a three-leaf clover, has been associated with Ireland for centuries. The Celts considered it a sacred plant that symbolised the arrival of spring.  In pagan Ireland, three was a significant number and the Irish had many triple deities. Because of this St. Patrick used the plant as a visual guide when explaining the Holy Trinity. By the 17th century, the shamrock became a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism. People in Ireland wear real shamrock on our lapels for St. Patrick's day.

Modern Times

Today's Saint Patrick's Day celebrations have been greatly influenced by those that developed among the Irish diaspora, especially in North America. Until the late 20th century, Saint Patrick's Day was often a bigger celebration among the diaspora than it was in Ireland. Celebrations generally involve public parades and festivals, Irish traditional music sessions (céilithe), and the wearing of green attire and shamrocks. Saint Patrick's Day parades began in North America in the 18th century but did not spread to Ireland until the 20th century. The participants generally include marching bands, the military, fire brigades, cultural organisations, charitable organisations, voluntary associations, youth groups, etc. However, over time, many of the parades have become more like a carnival. More effort is made to use the Irish language, especially in Ireland, where 1-17th march is "Irish language week".

Christians may also attend church services, and the Lent restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol are lifted for the day. Perhaps because of this, drinking alcohol – particularly Irish whiskey, beer, or cider – has become an integral part of the celebrations.

St. Patrick’s day parades take place all over the world: Ireland, Russia, to the US, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Australia and even in Montserrat in the Caribbean!

Although there were a small number of Christians on the island when Patrick arrived, most Irish practiced a nature-based pagan religion. The Irish culture was based on a rich tradition of oral storytelling involving legends and myth. It is no surprise that the story of Patrick’s life has become exaggerated over the centuries— telling exciting tales to pass history to the next generation has always been a part of the Irish way of life.


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