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!
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 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.
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 Padraig‘ was sung.
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.
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!