Shamrocks, snakes and how a British slave became Ireland’s patron saint

Erin go bragh! St Patrick’s Day is nearly here, with events in honour of the patron saint of Ireland set to take place across the globe this week.

Recognised annually since the 1700s, the people of Ireland celebrate their heritage and culture on St Patrick’s Day, with the day growing as a commercial occasion rather than a religious event in recent years.

While Ireland embraces its patron saint day by holding vibrant, green parades, wearing shamrocks and flying Irish flags more than usual, celebrations also take place in other countries around the world, including the UK, United States, Egypt and Australia.

Here is everything you need to know about St Patrick’s Day, from the patron saint himself to Irish recipes and worldwide celebrations.

When is St Patrick’s Day 2019?

St Patrick’s Day, the patron saint day of Ireland, falls each year on March 17. The first parade in name of the saint took place in Boston in 1737, followed by the first “official” parade in New York in 1766. 

The celebration of St Patrick later spread to Dublin and other American cities and in recent years has grown in popularity elsewhere in Europe and Asia.

Who was St Patrick?

St Patrick’s exact birthplace is unknown and debated. Born as Maewyn Succat around the year of 385 AD in either England, Scotland or Wales, the patron saint was captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16 and brought to Ireland as a slave.

Working as a shepherd, Patrick was held captive for six years and grew closer to spirituality and prayer during this period of isolation. After a voice in his dream told him it was time to leave Ireland, Patrick successfully fled his master and sailed back to Britain to continue studying Christianity.

Shortly after his return home, an angel in Patrick’s dream told him to go back to Ireland as a missionary, and following this, he decided to travel to Gaul, to study religious instruction under Germanus, bishop of Auxerre.

Later ordained a bishop and eventually returning to Ireland, Patrick began his mission to spread the Christian message. During this time, Patrick converted thousands of people to Christianity and built churches, schools and monasteries across the country.

Legend suggests that Patrick used the three-leaf shamrock on his mission to explain the Holy Trinity, teaching his followers that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit exist as individual elements of the combined entity. While some experts claim this story was invented centuries later, the tale has led to the common practice of people wearing the symbol on the feast day.

Patrick is also thought to have banished snakes from Ireland to help remove the evil and introduce a new age. But experts claim this is a myth due to evidence snakes never existed in the country in the first place. Some say this was due to the icy waters of the Irish Sea while others believe the cold weather stopped the snakes travelling to Ireland from Britain or afar. 

Around 431 AD, Patrick was appointed as successor to St Palladius, the first bishop of Ireland, and during his later years, he wrote about his spirituality and life in his ‘Confession’. 

Believed to have died on March 17, in the year 461, Patrick’s spiritual path led him to become a legendary figure, as he left behind an established church and an island of Christians. Today, his work is commemorated annually on March 17.

Symbols and images associated with Ireland and St Patrick’s Day

The colours of the Irish flag represent Catholicism (green) and Protestantism (orange), unified by peace (white). Since the 18th century, green has also represented sympathy for Irish independence.

Despite St Patrick popularising shamrocks, with many choosing to wear them on the patron saint day, he is historically associated with the red Saltire of St Patrick, featured in the flag of the United Kingdom.

The patron saint of Ireland is also associated with the colour blue, after the creation of the Order of St Patrick in the 1780s made it the official colour. “St Patrick’s Blue” can be found on Ireland’s Presidential Standard, and in the plume of bearskins worn by the Irish Guards. 

The legend of the Leprechaun has also become a modern day symbol of Ireland. Known for their mischievous behaviour and leaving pots of gold at the end of rainbows, today, the mythical creatures feature heavily as a tourist symbol and some people choose to wear Leprechaun costumes and hats to St Patrick’s Day parades. Dublin even has its very own Leprechaun Museum.

St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland

Unlike St David’s Day and St George’s Day, St Patrick’s Day is a bank holiday in Ireland, allowing the Irish to fully embrace the festivities.

The people of Ireland honour their patron saint day every year by joining parades and dressing head to toe in green, white and orange, the colours of the Irish flag. Dublin’s famous St Patrick’s Festival Parade will take place on Sunday March 17 this year, starting at Parnell Square, with music and live performances from bands helping to convey the 2019 theme of storytelling.

Historically the “Feast of St Patrick”, the day has been observed by the Irish for over 1,000 years and families would traditionally attend church in the morning, before celebrating with dance, drink and a feast of bacon and cabbage. Today, Irish stews and pints of Guinness are often enjoyed as part of the celebration. 

As many as 13 million pints of Guinness are poured on St Patrick’s Day alone, increasing from the average 10 million glasses poured every day around the world. In fact, 1.8 billion are sold each year and the Guinness Storehouse is situated in the heart of St James’s Gate, Dublin, with visitors able to book a tour of the famous site. 

Popular Irish toasts on St Patrick’s Day, include: “Sláinte mhaith”, meaning “good health” in Irish Gaelic, and “may the good St Patrick protect ye, and the devil neglect ye”.

Other celebrations around the world

March 17 sees millions of people around the world, even those without Irish connections, turn out to celebrate St Patrick.

In the United States, the White House first recognised the Irish holiday and the countries’ relations more than 50 years ago, after President Harry Truman received a box of shamrocks from Ireland’s ambassador. In 1956, the first St Patrick’s Day meeting between the President and the Irish Taioseach took place and since the 1990s, the White House visit has been held annually.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and US President Donald Trump during the annual shamrock presentation ceremony at the White House in Washington DC Credit: Niall Carson/PA

Every year, London showcases Irish heritage and culture as part of its annual St Patrick’s Day festival and parade. While live stage performances and food stalls can be enjoyed in Trafalgar Square, colourful floats, dancers and Irish communities make their way through the capital’s streets. This year, the festivities take place on Sunday March 17.

In Tokyo, the “I Love Ireland” parade takes place over two days, on March 16 and 17, with vibrant costumes and marching bands, while in New York, 150,000 people join the parade travelling up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

In fact, a range of celebrations are held across the globe to celebrate the legendary Irish figure, including parades in Sydney, Australia, Auckland, New Zealand, and Oslo, Norway. 

In the British West Indies, the island of Montserrat has a public holiday for St Patrick’s Day and observes the patron saint with a seven day festival and parade. Dubbed the “Emerald Isle” in memory of their Irish settlers, Montserrat even use a green shamrock as their official passport stamp.

St Patrick’s Day is also a provincial holiday in the Canadian province of Newfoundland, where a significant number of Irish people emigrated to during the 18th and 19th centuries. 

In Chicago, their river has been traditionally dyed bright green on March 17 since 1962, with thousands heading to the city to see one of the most famous St Patrick’s Day sights.

Rowers navigate the Chicago River shortly after it was dyed green in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Other countries join Chicago in turning their famous landmarks green on March 17, including the London Eye and HMS Belfast in London, the pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt, Burj Al Arab in Dubai, Sydney Opera House in Australia and the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

The best Irish recipes

Clodagh McKenna’s beef and Guinness stew

Beautifully tender beef, cooked in the beloved Irish beverage. This hearty winter dish is served perfectly with creamy mash or roast potatoes.

Beef stew Credit: The Picture Pantry/Alloy

Slow-cooked red cabbage with apples and raisin

Traditionally served with beef, pork or turkey, red cabbage brings a sweet flavour to any dish and can also be eaten cold in sandwiches.

Red cabbage Credit: Getty Images

Rachel Allen’s Barmbrack (báirín breac) 

This traditional Irish sweetened bread, packed with sultanas, raisins or currants, makes a delicious treat and can be enjoyed fresh, toasted or buttered. 

Barmbrack, a traditional Irish fruit loaf Credit: D and S Food Photography/Alamy

The best Irish drinks

While Ireland is the place to be for a pint of Guinness, it is also home to an array of famous alcoholic beverages including Jameson whiskey and Irish cream liqueur. 

If Guinness doesn’t take your fancy, the Thinking Drinkers have selected the best alternatives to drink on St Patrick’s Day, from craft whiskey to post poitin.


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