A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day


Once again, March has come and people from all backgrounds around the world are gearing up for the holiday famous for shamrocks, beer and all things green - St. Patrick’s Day. However, very few know anything about the history or patron saint behind this historic holiday. 

Who is Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick is the patron saint and apostle of Ireland. However, St. Patrick himself was not Irish in heritage. He was born in Roman Britain. According to legend, St. Patrick was actually born with the name Maewyn Succat. How did he end up becoming the patron saint of a country he wasn’t even born in, under a completely different name? When he was 16 years old, St. Patrick was kidnapped and brought to Ireland by pirates, who sold him as a slave. About six years later, he either escaped capture or was released, ending up in a Monastery in Gaul (France).


After leaving capture, he became a priest. It is at this time St. Patrick changed his name from Maewyn Succat to Patricius, derived from the Latin term for “father figure” (In the Irish language, Patricius is translated to Pádraig). He returned to Ireland in 432 as a missionary, where he was extremely fortunate in converting Druid culture to Christianity (hence his famed luck and the theme of all modern-day merchandising for the holiday). St. Patrick is often credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish people, but more accurately, made it more widespread throughout the country. 

St. Patrick is believed to have died in the fifth century on March 17, 641. In 1631, the Church established a Feast Day honoring him annually on March 17, providing Christians a day off during the rigorous abstinence of Lent before the arrival of Easter. 

However, in the 1720s, this “day off” during Lent was deemed out of control by the Church. It was then the Church associated a botanical item - standard for all saints - with St. Patrick to remind Christians what the Feast Day truly meant. The most well-known legend surrounding the mysterious life of St. Patrick is his explanation of the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) using the three leaves of the shamrock, a native Irish clover. From this point forward, the shamrock was associated with St. Patrick and his luck. 

Up until 1798, the color associated with St. Patrick’s Day was blue, not green. Blue was featured in both the royal court and ancient Irish flags. It was not until the Irish Rebellion the color associated with the holiday changed from blue to green. The British wore red, so the Irish chose green and sang the song “The Wearing of the Green” during the rebellion, cementing the color’s relevance in Irish history. 

St. Patrick’s Day in the United States

Although St. Patrick’s Day was recognized in Ireland for over a century prior, it was not until March 17, 1762 that it became a day of parades and heritage celebration. The first parade honoring St. Patrick was held in the United States when Irish soldiers, serving in the English military, marched through the streets of New York City to reconnect with their Irish roots through music, as well as connect with fellow Irishmen serving in the English military.

Over the next 35 years, Irish patriotism flourished in the New World among American immigrants. This movement prompted the rise of “Irish Aid” societies, such as the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society. Each of these groups would hold annual parades featuring bagpipes and drums. 

However, in 1848, several of the Irish Aid societies got together, deciding to unite these separate parades to form one official New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Flash forward to today, this parade is the world’s oldest civilian parade, and the largest in the United States, with over 150,000 participants each year. Nearly 3 million people gather to the city and line the 1.5-mile parade route to watch as it passes by, which takes over five hours. Most notably, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Savannah also host parades involving between 10,000 and 20,000 participants. 

Combating Racism through St. Patrick’s Day Parades

Until the mid-19th century, most Irish immigrants in America were members of the Protestant middle-class. However, in 1845, when the Great Potato Famine hit Ireland, almost one million poor, uneducated Irish Catholics poured into the country to escape starvation. These immigrants faced a difficult time obtaining menial jobs, despised for their unfamiliar religious beliefs and foreign accents by the American Protestant majority. On St. Patrick’s Day, when these immigrants took to the streets of the country’s cities to celebrate their heritage, local newspapers portrayed them in cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys. 


However, as the number of Irish Americans grew, many realized they had a political edge in the country, yet to be explored. Irish Americans soon began organizing, turning their voting block (known as the “green machine”) into an important swing vote for political hopefuls. Suddenly, St. Patrick’s Day parades became a show of strength for Irish Americans and a must-attend event for a slew of political candidates running for office. A turning point for America occurred in 1948, when Harry S. Truman attended the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a proud moment for many Irish Americans whose ancestors fought stereotypes and racial prejudice for acceptance in the New World. 

Irish Immigrants Spread Across the United States

As immigrants moved west, cities formed their own St. Patrick’s Day traditions. In Chicago, the city dyes the Chicago River green for their annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. This tradition began in 1962, when city pollution-control workers used dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges into the river. City officials soon realized the green dye could be a unique way to celebrate the Irish holiday. That year, Chicago released 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into the river, enough to keep the river green for an entire week. Today, the city only uses 40 pounds of dye to minimize environmental impact, enough to turn the river green for several hours. There is debate whether this idea originated in Chicago, or if it was borrowed from a previous attempt at river dying in Savannah, Ga.

St. Patrick’s Day Around the World

St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated globally in modern times, especially in the United States, Canada and Australia. Although North America is home to the largest celebrations, there are many other countries far from Ireland celebrating the holiday, including Japan, Singapore and Russia. 

Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day has been a religious occasion in modern-day Ireland. Until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated pubs be closed on March 17 to observe the holiday. In the mid-1990s, the Irish government started a national campaign to drive tourism to Ireland, showcasing the Emerald Isle and its culture to the rest of the world. Today, approximately one million people take part annually in the country’s St. Patrick’s Festival, located in Dublin. This multi-day celebration features parades, concerts, outdoor theater productions and fireworks shows galore. Slainte!

Eliza Hunt