St Patrick’s Day:Badges,Shamrocks and ‘Going Green’

adare shamrock

A bowl of ‘Shamrock‘ on a restaurant table in Adare, Co. Limerick this week

St. Patrick’s Day…When half the world turns green and the other half is out parading –  or so it seems! Airports, rivers, waterfalls, tourist features, buildings, beer and people the world over – all in green livery for the ‘big day’. From Pyramids to Google Doodles– they are all ‘at it’!  But, it is far from all of this that we were reared!

Trifolium.dubium

This little 3 leafed plant looks like the Shamrock that we used to pick for St Patrick’s Day. It grew tight to the ground and was difficult to pick the little sprigs.

St. Patrick’s Day celebrations  in my small village in Donegal were traditionally simple. Apart from obligatory Mass and school being closed, nothing else much happened. I have tried to recall the events of a typical St Patrick’s Day when I was growing up. I remember being dispatched to find some  shamrock a week or so before the big day and again on the day before. The double harvest was required as we had small purpose made boxes in which shamrock would be posted to relatives abroad in England, Scotland or America,(no customs restrictions in those days!) and then people at home needed fresh Shamrock to wear on St Patrick’s Day itself.

Shamrock is  a very specific plant that can be found growing in certain places. I recall a roadside bank, and a particular field  where I used to gather quite a bit. The stems creep along the ground and I have vivid recollections of having cold and sore fingers from trying to uproot  stems with a bit of length, so that they could be pinned onto  a coat or lapel. The wet mud would compact under fingernails and it was often quite painful! I also recall being sent back out to get the real thing, when tired of the pulling, decided to just pick clover instead –  much easier to harvest as the stems did not cling so tightly to the cold wet earth!

clover

This is clover and earned me a clip on the ear if it was brought home for St Patrick’s Day

Clover is a much softer plant with the leaves on longer stems than ‘proper’ shamrock. Clover usually had  a white mark in the centre of the leaves.

Oxalis

Oxalis is not Shamrock either !

As well as wearing Shamrock, we children had a St Patrick’s Day badge. These were bought in the village shop for about 4 pence and consisted of a length of  green, white and orange ribbon. Some had a gold paper harp attached. Several designs were usually available and these were worn with great pride. Later at Mass, the very lively hymn ‘Síor Glór do Naomh Padraigwas sung.

Traditional-irish-stipatricksidayibadges

St Patrick’s Day badges c. early 20th century, from the Museum of Country Life. Image Wikimedia Commons.

It is often said that the designation of March 17th as the Feast Day was an ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’  as it falls slap bang in the middle of Lent, when most  Irish would be abstaining from sweets, alcohol and other niceties.  Being a feast day, Lenten rules of abstinence and mortification did not apply, so it was certainly a ‘feast day’ with a difference. The tradition of ‘drowning  the shamrock’ appears  to go back for several hundred years. This is variously described as alcohol being poured over a shamrock in the bottom of a glass, or shamrock being floated on top of a glass. Either way, the alcohol was quaffed, and presumably the drowned plant went with it. Public Houses were forbidden to open on St Patrick’s Day from the early 1900’s up to the 1970s, in an attempt to curb excessive ‘shamrock drowning’. Irish people are of course aware that neither a ‘closed door’ nor licensing regulations are of much consequence when there is serious shamrock drowning to be done.

St Patrick’s Day is a relatively modern feast day, having been so designated as recently as the 17th Century. It is recognized in many Christian traditions, including Anglican and Eastern Orthodox as well as Catholic. It has now turned into a world-wide festival of Irishness – interesting,  given that St Patrick was not even an Irishman! St Brigid would have been much much more appropriate as a National Saint but for two major failings – serious enough that she was tentatively associated with a pagan pre Christian deity,  but worse still – she had a gender issue – she was after all only  a woman and therefore highly unsuitable for such a prestigious position. The foreign Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland in 432 AD. This is contested as it is believed that there were groups of Christians in Ireland before he ever arrived. Many places in Ireland contain his name, the most famous being Croagh Patrick, a mountain in Mayo and a place of Pilgrimage, and there are many holy wells that bear his name although it is highly unlikely that he visited all of them.

StP

Patrick misrepresented in 17th century ecclesiastical garb, with equally misrepresented serpents

It is rather odd that he is depicted wearing a Bishop’s Mitre and green church vestments that were not invented until several hundred years after his death. This is a dishonest portrayal of the truth of who he was . Another myth prevails that he drove the snakes out of Ireland as apparently there were none here in the first place.

Whatever the truth and the fiction, St Patrick’s Day in the early 21st century is far removed from the simple religious celebration of the Ireland  of  50 years ago.  It is now a world-wide celebration of all that is Irish and it continues to reinvent itself. For the past number of years Ireland has had parades and the St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Dublin have now become an annual festival. The famous New York St Patrick’s Day Parade first took place in 1762 and it is thanks to Irish emigrants in far flung places that the tradition has been kept alive. While we do have to tolerate the  stereotypically awful  ‘begorrahs’ and ‘top of the mornin’ and red bearded leprechauns, not to mention the emerging excruciating ‘St Patty’s Day’, we Irish are immensely proud that the world celebrates us so enthusiastically each year.

St Patrick is the lynchpin for Irish identity right across the world, for believers and non believers.  The blurred boundaries between a national saint’s day and a national Ireland day are easily forgotten when we witness the enthusiasm and the joy and fun as people party for Ireland all over the world.

For academic and fascinating scholarly information on St Patrick, a visit to Terry O’Hagan’s  blog voxhiberionacum. is a must.

This post originally posted in March 2013  was updated in March 2014

Lá ‘le Pádraig sona daoibh!

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16 Comments

Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Emigration from Ireland, Home, Humour, Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Diaspora, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions, Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland

16 responses to “St Patrick’s Day:Badges,Shamrocks and ‘Going Green’

  1. How wonderfully Irish to allow the feast day to interrupt Lent… I’ve never hear of drowning the shamrock. As a non drinker, do you think it would be ok to drown it in an Irish coffee instead, with just imitation whiskey essence of course?

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you and yours…

  2. What, the serpents & snakes are just a myth? Yes I used to set off for school 50 years ago with a huge sprig of shamrock on my blazer lapel, courtesy of Irish relatives – no holiday in England – and we used to belt out the ‘Hail Glorious St Patrick…’
    Very nice article SV and I won’t spoil it with grumpiness about inflatable green hammers 🙂

    • Ah – that is excellent – a recipient of the box of shamrock! Hail Glorious St Patrick is a lovely hymn – we had it at school in the 1960’s – Frank Patterson did a lovely version – it’s on You Tube. I can add the inflatable green hammers to my list of things we have to endure….I am sure they are here too! Happy St Patrick’s Day to you and yours !

  3. What an interesting post, a great read. I so agree about ‘ the stereotypically awful ’begorrahs’ and ‘top of the mornin’ and red bearded leprechauns’ – but I suppose if people are having fun…

  4. SV, you’ve certainly resurrected a lot of old memories here! I was only thinking of us all standing out on the avenue to the school in Castlebayney singing ‘Hail Glorious St. Patrick.’ Yes, the badges were great.
    I’ve been amazed how St. Patrick’s Day was taken really seriously by an Italian/American family (living in America) that I came across. They had no connection with Ireland or people of Irish descent but were more Irish than the Irish themselves and this was back in the 1940s or so.

  5. I should have included lovely Hail Glorious St Patrick, but I don’t recall knowing that until later. Síor Glór do Naoimh Padraig was belted out at such a speed – you could almost dance a jig to it! Interesting how the St Patrick’s Day phenomenon is taken so seriously by people the world over. Thanks for visiting – Happy St Patrick’s Day! Angela

  6. Ah, yes…everyone claims to have an Irish ancestor or two in the closet come this time of year. It seems like in the past 10 years or so it has really become an excuse to drink in excess and wear really silly things. The drinking part does get boring though and irks me that the association with the Irish is all about the drink. Thank you for posting this most interesting information. I like to think of it as a bit of a quiet day to think of my not so distant relatives who left Ireland in troubled times and brought with them stories of things other than how much they drank…mind you I still like to tip back a Guiness and maybe make a batch of soda bread for the day!

  7. Reblogged this on A SILVER VOICE FROM IRELAND and commented:

    Badges, Shamrocks and Going Green for St Patrick’s Day.Update of an earlier post.

  8. Thank you for your kind words and for bringing back memories to me too. I can only go back 30 years or so, but the shop-bought & homemade badges and rosettes were still a part of Irish Childhood. As were the freezing reviews of tractor parades! Cheers!

    • Oh Lord – 30 years ago when we moved to Limerick I saw my first (and last) tractor parade . They still do that to some extent in smaller towns, with lorries and tractors and a couple of perished schoolkids in GAA gear perched up on a trailer in the rain. The Dublin Festival has helped to ”up the game”for rural parades I think and some towns now do a joint effort with the neighbouring places. Thanks for the visit!

  9. Our St Patrick`s Day in the west of Ireland fadó, fadó was very similar to yours. I dislike the whole drinking element with which the day is associated nowadays. In particular, seeing very young teenagers walking the streets, and obviously drunk. As a country, we still have a lot of wising up to do on the alcoholism front.
    Lovely post, SV!

    • Ah indeed we do – but in honesty it was nothing like that in rural villages long ago, except I do remember my dad saying that men who had gone off the drink for Lent would ‘break out’ on Patrick’s Day. And in those days it was a half dozen men or so who would ever be in a pub anyhow!

  10. Mary Power

    My Mom, Maureen, remember the St. Patrick’s Day badges very well. All the children had them and they were passed around so much the flimsy gold harps fell-off by the end of the day. They also had shamrocks growing right in their stone wall so they didn’t have to go far to collect them. She grew up in 1930’s Milltown, Kerry and loved having the day off from school after they attended morning Mass.

    • Hi Mary. That sounds like our flimsy badges alright! The were green ribbon with the gold paper harp stuck on and we pinned the on with tiny gold pins! Lucky her to have shamrocks in her wall! Thanks for the memory!

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