St Patrick's Day (17th March)

Saint Patrick’s Day is the national holiday of Ireland and large scale celebrations take place there in many towns and many, many bars and pubs.

St Patrick stained glass window

St Patrick’s Day parties

  • O’Neill’s in Cardiff are hosting a variety of St Patrick’s Day themed celebrations, and a petition to make the day a bank holiday here as it is in Ireland.

Saint Patrick: A brief history

As with many other saints, a lot of the story of Saint Patrick is disputed. You can easily find conflicting information from equally respectable sources. With that in mind, what is actually known about St Patrick?

Neither his birthday nor the day of his death are known. It is believed that he died on a March 17th, which is why St Patrick’s Day falls on that date every year. However, there are notable disagreement on the year of his death (and also on the year of his birth). Some sources claim he lived for 120 years, from 373 to 493, which is a rather longer than average life expectancy.

The BBC have prepared a very good overview about St Patrick – it’s an excellent place to start if you are interested in finding out more about the saint.

Celtic cross - photo by Andrea Raia Most accounts of St Patrick mention that he was kidnapped from his home in Britain at the age of 16 and sold into slavery. Some accounts call the kidnappers “raiders”, in other accounts, they’re “pirates”. He spent time in Ireland as slave / farm hand, found religion, and eventually escaped back to Britain. After studying for a few years, he returned to Ireland to support the already existing Christian communities there, and convert others to Christianity. Speaking the native language thanks to the time he spent in Ireland in his youth, and being familiar with local beliefs, he did not appear condescending when he started his efforts to convert people. He amalgamated some of the local beliefs with Christianity, and the Celtic Cross, which features a symbolic sun integrated into the Christian Crucifix, was allegedly one of his creations. Integrating Celtic imagery and sun-worship allowed Christianity to appear much less foreign to the Irish people of the time.

He was extremely successful at growing the Christian community. He did not, however, convert all of Ireland to Christianity. Historians are unsure whether St Patrick was a single person (some believe the achievements of two separate and distinct individuals were amalgamated into one to boost the saint’s profile), but they generally claim that he was most active in Ulster / Northern Ireland. The rest of the island converted to Christianity over time, long after his death.

Shamrock - photo by Still Burning As you might expect, there are many tall tales about St Patrick and his achievements. After all, he did have an adventurous life. However, stories describing how he single-handedly banned all snakes from Ireland, turned a cave into an entrance to purgatory, and turned the three-leafed clover (shamrock) into a national symbol by using it to explain the nature of the holy trinity are generally considered fictitious. It’s proven that Ireland hasn’t been native home to snakes at any point since the last ice age, and the first mention of the shamrock story occurred nearly a thousand years after St Patrick’s death. As for the gate to purgatory – it still is a popular destination for pilgrimages (as are many of the locations associated with St Patrick).

St Patrick’s Day celebrations

While St Patrick has been revered by the Irish for centuries, modern day St Patrick’s celebrations are actually a fairly recent development. Originally, St Patrick’s Day would be a feast day for all Catholics – very significant, as it always falls into the time of Lent, and thus allows for a day of food, drink and merry-making in a time otherwise spent fasting.

Chicago river, dyed green, photo by Multisanti However, as the observance of Lent has diminished, so did the contrast between St Patrick’s Day and other saints’ feast days. It is largely thanks to Irish emigrant communities abroad that the day has been turned into an international event. American people of Irish descent started organising parades, and even dyeing rivers green to celebrate their culture. St Patrick’s Day started to be celebrated by Irish descendants all over the world, and wearing something green, while drinking Irish drinks and eating traditional Irish foods became part of the holiday.

As these celebrations grew ever more popular abroad, Ireland and Northern Ireland decided to capitalise on them. In the mid-1990s, Ireland’s government made a conscious decision to organise an annual festival, the St Patrick’s Festival, with a stated intention to make it on a par with any of the world’s most famous.

In Northern Ireland, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated most enthusiastically in the cities that were St Patrick’s homes: Downpatrick (where he allegedly lies buried) and Armagh.

Around the world, there are parades in numerous cities. Expect decorations and enthusiastic people pretending to be “Irish for a day”. St Patrick himself may have been Welsh, so perhaps a few Irish people will pretend to be “Welsh for a day” too!

Irish pubs are bound to be popular and you’ll see lots of people wearing green clothes, souvenir hats and shamrocks, and getting festively merry.