A Few St. Patrick’s Day Facts I Didn’t Know Until I Wrote this Blog
Growing up, St. Patrick’s Day was always an important date around my house. My mother, sister, and I would always be decked out in our Irish green. In clothing we only wore on that day, unless there was an extended family reunion. Being descendants of Irish immigrants from the mid 1800’s was a point of pride. For some reason my German side didn’t invoke the same sense of pride. Perhaps that’s because my German ancestors had immigrated 20 years earlier than my Irish ancestors. Though I suspect it is more likely the typical German versus Irish traits. The Irish after all are great story tellers.
Someone once said my family was ‘more Irish than the Irish’. At the time I was surprised. With age I have come to understand what was meant by it. Both the American and Canadian descendants of the Irish potato famine refugees (and from what I’ve read Brazil, Argentina, New Zealand, and Australia too) seem to hold the Emerald Isle dear, even almost 200 years later. In fact, my extended Irish family is so devoted to their Irish roots that 56 of us made a pilgrimage to Ireland several years ago. It was only 56 because that is all the bus could hold.
Dingle Peninsula and the Cliffs of Moher
Once I had children, I realized how much the St. Patrick’s Day traditions had grown in Canada and the US. One March 17th we attended a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Naples, Florida. I expected this short little performance, but it was like going to Mardi Gras, in New Orleans. The parade just went on and on. It seemed to mostly consist of retirees searching for children to hand candy to. My children’s candy haul was more than a typical Halloween.
A few years later I learned that in University towns in Canada (and I believe the US too) on St. Patrick’s Day, if you aren’t in the bar by 3 in the afternoon, you are going to have a long wait to get in. If you do get in everyone is more sociable than normal and, of course, everyone is wearing green in the form of clothing, shamrocks, the ridiculous hats, glass, etc...
Someone once told me that there are more people in Canada with Irish citizenship than there are in Ireland. Of course, I couldn’t find that statement anywhere, but I did compare census data from 2016 for both countries. In Canada, as of 2016 there were 4.6 million Canadians that also had Irish citizenship, and the population of Ireland was 4.7 million at that time. My children and husband are 3 Canadians with Irish citizenship. However along with them my husband’s mother, siblings and nephews are all entitled to Irish citizenship and don’t have it. Therefore, from that information I am going to extrapolate that if everyone who is entitled to Irish citizenship applied for it, the statement would be true. That is just Canada. In the US as of 2019 the number was 32 million Americans had Irish citizenship!
On the left my mom and I on the former O’Hagan homestead in Ireland. On the right the last place the O’Hagan’s lived in N. Ireland before they fled to the South.
Anyway, my point in this blog is to discuss some of the facts about St. Patrick’s Day, both true and false.
St. Patrick was not Irish; he was actually born in Britain in the 5th century. Around the age of 16 he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland. Some reports say he was a slave, and others he was a sheep herder. In Confessions by St. Patrick, he claims this experience was vital to developing his spirituality. After 6 years of living as a slave he then escaped back to Britain. He studied in France and became ordained into priesthood. Following this, St. Patrick claimed to have had a vison, and following up on this vision returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary. In Ireland, he established many churches, schools, and monasteries, and became a consecrated bishop.
Contrary to popular belief, blue was the original colour for St. Patrick’s Day. In the earliest paintings of St. Patrick, he was dressed in blue, not green. In 1541 King Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland and gave Ireland its own coat of arms, in blue. In 1801 when George III united Great Britain and Ireland the official colour was St. Patrick’s blue. However, after the 1798 Irish rebellion the relationship between the UK and Ireland deteriorated and the colour green and the shamrock became symbols of the Irish identity and of the Irish rebellion against the British. Over time green took hold as the colour for St. Patrick’s Day. However, to this day the official colour of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s Choir robes is sky blue.
A shamrock on some old fence in Ireland on the left and on the right a gift from my sister.
This brings us to the shamrock or clover. The importance of the shamrock in Ireland dates back to before the 1st century; to the time of the druids. It is said that St. Patrick used it to explain the holy trinity – the father, the son, and the holy spirit. With the deteriorating relationship between Great Britain and Ireland in the 18th century, the wearing of a shamrock became the symbol of rebellion, along with the colour green, and it is at this time that the shamrock came to be the symbol of Ireland.
Oh The Shamrock
Through Erin's Isle,
To sport awhile,
As Love and Valor wander'd
With Wit, the sprite,
Whose quiver bright
A thousand arrows squander'd.
Where'er they pass,
A triple grass
Shoots up, with dew-drops streaming,
As softly green
As emeralds seen
Through purest crystal gleaming.
Oh the Shamrock, the green immortal Shamrock!
Of Bard and Chief,
Old Erin's native Shamrock!
Why do we associate alcohol with St. Patrick’s Day? St. Patrick’s Day falls in the 40 days of the fasting period of lent. However, in Ireland, there were many festive activities occurring on March 17th and the stricter Christians also attended a church service on this day. After the services on St. Patrick’s Day were over the sacrifices being made for lent were relaxed, and people could partake in the celebrations without worrying about fasting or alcohol restrictions. Historically the men would retire to the nearest pub and toast with a ‘St. Patrick’s Day pot. This does not refer to becoming drunk but to the fact that at the end of the day the shamrock one is wearing in their hat or lapel was placed into the last drink to good health for the day. After the drink had been drunk the clover was taken out of the glass and thrown over one’s left shoulder. Then everyone returned to the lent fasting. Maybe next year I will research where the pot of gold idea comes from – perhaps it is the shamrock in the bottom of the St. Patrick’s Day pot?
St. Patrick was venerated as a saint in the 7th century and there is evidence that there were celebrations on March 17th in the 9th and 10th centuries, but St. Patrick’s Day only became an official Christian feast day in the 1630s. The feast day in Ireland was not and is not the grand celebration it is in Canada and the US today. It was in fact the American’s who hosted the first parade as early as 1601 in St Augustine in Spanish Florida. The first parade in Ireland did not take place until 1903 in Waterford.
With this new knowledge, this year, as in the last 8 St. Patrick’s Days since I moved to the Netherlands, on March 17th I will don my Irish clothing knowing the feast is not celebrated here. The Dutch however, are very aware of the tradition and go out of their way to wish me a happy St. Patrick’s Day with a smile on their faces.
Wishing all of you who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day a wonderful day and hope that next year Covid will have passed and we can celebrate as we would normally.
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