History of St. Patrick’s Day

By June Peers

Every March, decorations for St. Patrick’s Day fill store aisles.  Common symbols we have become familiar with are shamrocks, leprechauns, and cauldrons of gold.  Due to the commercialization of the holiday though, the true history of St. Patrick’s Day has been long forgotten. 

Before the tradition of visiting Irish pubs became popularized, the date of March 17 represented the death of the historical figure, St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland.  At 16 years old, he was kidnapped in Roman Britain and forced into slavery in Ireland.  In spite of this, he was able to spread Catholic Christianity to the Irish people.

Though the connections between St. Patrick and the holiday have been told as legends, these stories have transformed Ireland tremendously.  It is believed that the common shamrock symbol, Ireland’s native clover, has a biblical history behind it.  St. Patrick explained that the three leaves of the clover represent the Holy Trinity; Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Traditionally, Irish families would attend church in the morning, and then dance, drink, and feast in the afternoon.  Due to the Great Famine, many Irish people migrated to America to escape starvation.  Though Irish Catholics would be ostracized in a primarily Protestant country and face employment discrimination as a result, Americans would later adopt and honor Irish traditions.

According to U.S. Census data, as of 2020, there are over 31 million Americans of Irish descent. That’s 9.65 percent of the nation. 

 Additionally, more than 20 presidents claim Irish roots, including Joe Biden.  Irish culture has been so heavily rooted in American traditions that typical Americans are unaware of Ireland’s impact on our country.

Christmas festivities such as hanging wreaths, singing carols, and leaving cookies for Santa all come from Ireland.

Paradoxically, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1601 was held in America, not Ireland.  Since then, it has become customary for big American cities to celebrate this Irish holiday in show-stopping ways.  Most notably, for more than sixty years, the Chicago River has been dyed green specifically for this date.

Another important city to mention is New York.  New York is rich in Irish culture since many Irish immigrants settled in New York City after the Great Famine.  The city is known for holding the most popular St. Patrick’s Day parade in the nation.  Every year, three million attendees watch the 1.5-mile parade route for five hours.

Throughout centuries, St. Patrick’s Day has grown in popularity.  Both St. Patrick’s Day and the Irish migration have a deep history that goes beyond what is seen in your typical store.  Knowing about this history helps Americans understand why we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and most importantly, gives them insight into how Irish people have shaped our country.