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Water Cooler: St. Patrick’s Day history

UPDATED: Tue., March 9, 2021

St. Patrick’s Day is a national festival celebrated all over the world. Most Americans, of Irish heritage or not, celebrate the holiday each year. It may surprise you that the traditional celebrations associated with St. Patrick’s Day festivities are much more recent, despite the holiday being celebrated by the Irish for more than a thousand years.

Saint Patrick’s Day was originally a holy day to celebrate the Christian missionary and bishop, Saint Patrick. He lived during the fifth century and is considered Romano-British, which means his heritage was the result of the fusion of culture from the Roman Empire and the Indigenous Britons, a Celtic people who had been on the island of Great Britain since at least the Iron Age.

Within the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, he is often credited as being the founder of Christianity in Ireland having successfully converted culture that had previously practiced Celtic polytheism. It is said that Saint Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Christian Holy Trinity, which might explain how the shamrock became associated with the holiday that would celebrate him. Because of his missionary work, Irish people began to recognize Saint Patrick as the patron saint, or heavenly advocate, of Ireland. This solidified his association with Irish culture and pride.

St. Patrick’s Day was originally called “Lá Fhéile Pádraig” in Irish, which translates literally as the Day of the Festival of Patrick. It is celebrated on March 17 to commemorate Saint Patrick’s death, although the exact date of death is unknown. It wasn’t declared an official Christian feast day until the 17th century, but it has been celebrated by the Irish hundreds of years earlier, since around the ninth and 10th centuries.

Due to the presence of Irish settlers in North America, the holiday has been celebrated in what is now known as the United States since the 1600s. To this day, the holiday is not a legal holiday in the United States, but it is widely recognized throughout the nation.

It wasn’t until 1903 that St. Patrick’s Day became an official public holiday in Ireland. The country had its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the city of Waterford the same year, and the Gaelic League declared the week of St. Patrick’s Day as Irish Language Week. A few years later in 1916, an Irish nationalist group called the Irish Volunteers held parades throughout Ireland, with some sources claiming that half of the 6,000 participants were armed. The next month, the Irish Volunteers launched the Easter Rising which came to mark the beginning of the Irish revolutionary period.

During this time, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were low-key, but the date was often chosen for political rallies. This remained the case even after the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the end of the Irish War of Independence. The Irish Free State even banned the sale of alcohol on St. Patrick’s Day from 1927 to 1961, although sales remained legal in Northern Ireland. That said, St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t officially observed in Northern Ireland, and celebrations were rare and usually only associated with the Catholic community.

It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that the Republic of Ireland revitalized the popularity of the holiday as a campaign to celebrate Irish culture and people and promote national pride. The first St. Patrick’s Festival was held in 1996. It began as a one-day festival, but by 2006 it was five days long. In 2009, the festival attracted nearly 1 million visitors. Symbols and practices of Irish heritage, such as wearing and displaying the color green, re-emerged and became widespread during this time, greatly influencing today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

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