St. Patty’s: A History

St. Patrick’s Day: a fun Irish holiday reserved for parades, catching leprechauns, corned beef and cabbage, and shamrocks. But how and when did this treasured holiday originate?

Well, it all started with a guy named Patrick, who was later named the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland. Though born in Roman Britain in the fifth century, St. Patrick was kidnapped and forced to Ireland where he lived as a slave at only 16 years old. After fortunately escaping, he eventually returned to Ireland and was recognized as the one who introduced Christianity to its people. March 17, the spirited holiday we all know and love, more deeply depicts the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death.

Now that you know a little bit more about who the holiday celebrates, let’s take a deeper look into some of the symbols and traditions that take place year after year. First, the legendary shamrock. A well-known tale told following St. Patrick’s death is that he actually taught the people of Ireland about the Holy Trinity using the three leaves of the native Irish clover, or the shamrock. As symbols and stories evolved, however, the shamrock later signified the rebirth of spring. Further along, by the 17th century, as the English seized their lands and implemented laws that blocked any practice of Catholicism and the Irish language, this 3-leafed clover stood as a national symbol to illustrate Irish heritage and pride and was worn to display their disapproval of the English rule. Today, at least in America, shamrocks are now often associated with the irresistible shamrock shake.

Next is the ever-so-loved corned beef and cabbage. While we view this as a traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal, the combination began only in the late 19th century. Though cabbage is known as an Irish food, the integration of corned beef originated in New York City. Interestingly, Irish immigrants substituted corned beef for their classic Irish bacon in order to save money. To my surprise, this alternative was fitting because the Irish immigrants found corned beef not only at a cheaper rate than bacon, but as a luxurious dish. And so, the corned beef and cabbage tradition was born.

One of my favorite St. Patrick’s Day traditions growing up was making traps to catch leprechauns. While I would have loved to find that pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, my 6-year old self never did catch a leprechaun. We are all familiar with these little orange-bearded men in a green coat and hat; even its original Irish name “lobaircin” means “small-bodied fellow.” These tiny Irish folklore figures were associated with other fairies but were often described as cranky, wealthy tricksters who must protect their gold and treasures. They were considered deceitful and mischievous little creatures, but if you caught one, legends say that he would grant you three wishes in exchange for his freedom. Though leprechauns are only part of fables, we are lucky enough to have them as mascots for the Boston Celtics, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and most importantly, the legendary Lucky Charms cereal.

While celebrations in the United States can get crazy, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is surely a sight to see. It wasn’t always that way, however. Because it was traditionally a religious holiday, Irish pubs were ordered to be closed on March 17, but in 1995, the government sought interest in the holiday’s tourist attraction and opportunity to showcase everything Ireland and its culture has to offer. Today, Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Festival covers several days that include parades, concerts, theater productions, and fireworks galore. How will you celebrate?

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