Most people know St. Patrick’s Day for green clothes, beer, and parades, and for that we can largely thank not Ireland, but Irish Americans.
The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and its date, March 17, has become a caricature of Irish culture and their reputed fondness for the drink all across the world, but its transformation from a solemn commemoration of the death of a saint to a Mardi Gras-esque Ireland appreciation day is very recent. So before you put on your pagan Leprechaun hat and tap the keg, here’s how Irish Americans took a minor Christian feast day and turned it into worldwide day of revelry.
The Man Behind The Day
One might naturally expect St. Patrick to be the man behind St. Patrick’s day, but the real culprit is the 17th century Franciscan priest and theologian Luke Wadding, according to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia. St. Patrick, who died in the year 461 A.D., is credited with bringing the Gospel to the successfully evangelized Ireland, but it was Wadding who popularized the saint’s feast day and unknowingly set the stage for it to become a world-renowned spectacle.
“Each year Wadding kept the Feast of St. Patrick with great solemnity at St. Isidore’s; and it is due to his influence as a member of the commission for the reform of the Breviary, that the festival of Ireland’s Apostle was inserted on 17 March in the calendar of the Universal Church,” the encyclopedia reads.
Wadding, who spent his lifetime writing scholarly works and championing the cause of the Irish against English oppression, leveraged his influence in the Church to establish St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 as an official liturgical feast day in 1631.
Irish Catholics had begun commemorating St. Patrick’s death as a feast day on March 17 beginning in either the 9th or 10th century, but even then the day was not widely celebrated throughout Ireland. Those communities that did celebrate St. Patrick’s feast day did so by attending Mass in the morning and feasting on a traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage and some moderate drinking in the afternoon, since the Catholic Church lifted the Lenten season prohibition on eating meat for the day, according to History. Drinking to excess was not common among the faithful on this feast day, due largely to the fact that the celebration fell in the middle of Lent.
Thanks to Wadding, celebrations of the feast day spread throughout the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Most of the first St. Patrick’s Day parades would not occur until over 100 years after Wadding’s death, and not in Ireland.
Irish immigrants to America are responsible for the first St. Patrick’s Day parades, and while the most well-known of these today are found in Boston and New York City, the first such parade was held in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1601 under the leadership of the Spanish garrison town’s Irish vicar, named in Spanish documents as Ricardo Arturo. The Spanish colonists marched through the town on March 17 in honor of St. Patrick as cannons roared from the settlement’s wooden fort.
The next recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade happened in 1762 in New York City. Irish soldiers serving in the British army marched through the city to traditional Irish songs in honor of the feast day, using the celebration as a way to honor and flaunt their heritage amid serving in the military of a country that had long oppressed them. The custom of celebrating St. Patrick’s feast day with parade spread next to Philadelphia and then, over the course of the 19th century, to New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, and Kansas City, Mo. Several Irish societies in New York decided to unite their celebrations for one large St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1848, thus beginning what would consistently be the largest civilian parade in the U.S. and the oldest one in the world, according to History.
These parades ushered in the concept of not only honoring St. Patrick with spectacle, but also celebrating Irish heritage and culture.
All the while, celebrations of St. Patrick’s day in Ireland remained much as they had been — no parades, just Mass, a good meal, and a little to drink. They did, however, change one detail.
The color originally associated with St. Patrick’s Day was actually blue, but with the Irish Rebellion of 1798 the “wearing of the green” on lapels became a nationalist symbol along with shamrocks. The Irish nationalist connotation of green and shamrocks combined with the Irish American use of St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate Irish heritage as well as the legend that St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity to the Irish made the color green and shamrocks synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day and edged out use of the color blue for the feast day.
The Irish American celebration of Irish heritage that St. Patrick’s Day had become also introduced another element to the feast day that was not native to the original feast day of “Ireland’s apostle” – drunken revelry. A New York Time’s piece from 1860 described the debauchery of that year’s St. Patrick’s Day and the herculean task the police had of corralling belligerent celebrants.
“The policemen had their hands full. Business was lively at the Tombs [the Manhattan Detention Complex]. An unbroken procession defiled through its doorways,” the piece read, according to National Catholic Reporter. The procession consisted of “drunken women with infants in their arms” and “men argumentatively disposed to establish logically the fact of their own sobriety” among other similarly inebriated citizens.
Drunken displays like the one described were not uncommon in American celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day since they began spreading around the country, mainly due to the fact that the American version had less to do with spiritual observance and more to do Irish cultural fervor.
Ireland Looks At All The Fun America Is Having, Lightens Up A Bit
While Irish Americans celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with the equivalent of angrily chanting “We’re not that drunk” from the inside of drunk tanks, the land of their forefathers tried desperately to maintain a sense of piety and sobriety.
Irish church leadership observed that celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day were beginning to get too rowdy in the early 1700s, and so began emphasizing in 1720 the symbolism of the Shamrock and St. Patrick’s use of it to explain the Trinity in order to remind Catholic faithful of the day’s holy purpose. The church’s emphasis on the connection between St. Patrick and the shamrock also fell in line with the Catholic tradition of associating a particular plant with a saint. The Irish government further staved off the prospect of nationwide pub crawls in 1903 when the church feast day became a national holiday by decreeing that all businesses were to be closed for St. Patrick’s Day.
The Irish government relented on pub closures during St. Patrick’s Day in the 1961 and that, coupled with a massive marketing campaign by Budweiser in the 1980s, firmly cemented the drinking of beer as a fixture of St. Patrick’s Day wherever it was celebrated in the world. As for parades, Ireland finally jumped on that American bandwagon in the 20th century and went full-bore with those celebrations in 1995, when the Irish government decided to use St. Patrick’s day festivals and parades to drive up tourism, if not piety.
Now, St. Patrick’s Day has become a largely secular celebration of Irish nationalism, observed from the Americas, the U.K., and Europe to Russia and the Far East and even as far away as the void of space. While modern worldwide celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day are a far cry from their pious and contemplative beginnings in Ireland, the spiritual meaning of the saint’s feast day at least endures within the Catholic Church as an optional memorial.
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