The History of St. Patrick's Day
St. Patrick’s Day is about more than celebrating Ireland by wearing green on March 17th every year. It actually has a deep history that revolves around the life of a man by the name of St. Patrick, known throughout his life as Patrick of Ireland.
What is it about this man that we celebrate St. Patrick each year in his honor? We’ll discuss that and so much more about this saintly man as we take a deep dive into the history of St. Patrick’s Day.
Patrick of Ireland
St. Patrick, from the Irish name Pádraig, lived sometime during the Fifth Century, although historians have not been able to pinpoint the exact years he lived. He was a bishop in Ireland who served the church and the people of Ireland for the remainder of his life.
Patrick of Ireland was never formally canonized because he lived before the Catholic Church formed the laws regarding canonizing saints. That said, his service to God and country have earned him his title as a saint.
Missionary of Ireland, Fifth Century
Patrick was also known as the "Apostle of Ireland" because while as a bishop, St. Patrick became a missionary to the people of Ireland, preaching on the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
According to a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages, Patrick served as the first Primate of Ireland and bishop of Armagh. He is also credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, converting the citizens from its pagan culture. He was also known for allegedly banishing snakes from Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Feast Day
According to Patrick's autobiography, Confessio of Patrick, when he was around 16, he was kidnapped from his home in England by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland to tend animals. He remained enslaved until he escaped and made his way back to his family six years later. After becoming a bishop, he returned to the Northern and Western regions of Ireland.
In the Seventh Century, he was honored as the Patron Saint of Ireland, forever known as St. Patrick of Ireland. For his service, a Feast Day in honor of his life has been celebrated by the Irish since his death on March 17, Fifth Century. That was the beginning of this once highly religious holiday turned secular celebration.
The Parable of the Shamrock
Have you ever wondered why the shamrock is part of the celebration? The answer is a simple one, St. Patrick was obsessed with shamrocks. Well, maybe not "obsessed," but he loved to use the clover as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity.
He would use the three-leafed shamrock whenever he would preach salvation to the masses. Later, the symbol became synonymous with the holiday. Although today, we use a four-leaf clover to represent the holiday, as four leaves on a shamrock are rare. The first mention of wearing shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day dates back to 1681.
St. Patrick's Well
St. Patrick's Well, called The Pozzo di San Patrizio, is located in Umbria, Italy, and is a peaceful and tranquil place honoring the patron saint of Ireland. It is reputed that St. Patrick passed by the location on his way to Lismore from Cashel, blessing the well.
The sight had been visited for millennia, and people believe that the crystal water from the well contains healing properties. Irish folklore includes numerous accounts of miracle cures, including one about a crippled boy who could walk after drinking from the well.
St. Patrick’s Reputed Burial Sight, Downpatrick, Ireland
When it comes to the death of St. Patrick, there is a lot of debate regarding what year he died. Although the day of his death has never been refuted, even though there are no clear records other than the annual celebration, it has always fallen on March 17th.
Another debate is where St. Patrick is reputed to be buried. There is a sight in Downpatrick, Ireland that historians claim to be the burial sight, yet it remains unproven. That poses another question: why wouldn't they exhume the sight to make sure? Probably because they don't want to disturb the grave but I guess we'll never know for sure.
The “Two Patricks” Theory
There are a lot of traditions that we tie to the celebration of St. Patrick. Many are reputed to be a result of the work St. Patrick is credited for, like telling parables using shamrocks. However, there's another saint named Palladius (the Latin form of Patrick), who was also a bishop in Ireland.
He was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine I sometime in 431 C.E. to bring Christianity to the Irish. Was he before St. Patrick or after? Historians aren't sure, but what we do know is that some traditions of the holiday can be tied back to Palladius, like the color green (more on that later).
The First St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations
So, now that we know why we celebrate St. Patrick's Day, when did this religious holiday become the spectacular event that it is today? While all of Ireland has celebrated St. Patrick's Day since the man's death, celebrations outside Ireland did not become mainstream until the 1600s.
The celebration began as a religious holiday that fell between Lent and Easter, where Irish families would attend church in the morning and feast in the afternoon, dancing, drinking, and carrying on. The first recorded parade didn't take place until 1631, when Irish people living in the American colonies held a festival and parade in St. Augustine, Florida.
St. Patrick’s Day During the Revolution
Nearly a century and a half later, the colonies found themselves at war with Britain for their freedom from the Kingdom of England. Homesick Irish soldiers that served in the English military marched in New York City streets on St. Patrick's Day in 1772.
When George Washington heard about the actions of the Irish British soldiers, he organized a similar event in the streets of Boston. Each year after that, during the Revolutionary War, soldiers would march to honor the patron saint in cities around the colonies. The marches turned into parades, and the enthusiasm for these parades grew from there.
St. Patrick’s Day in America
Once America won its independence from England, Irish patriotism prevailed among the immigrants to the United States. This prompted the rise of so-called "Irish Aid" societies, such as the Hibernian Society and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in America.
From the Revolution to today, St. Patrick’s Day continues to be one of the largest celebrations worldwide. While St. Patrick’s Day has always been an Irish holiday, America is the first country to have always celebrated this holiday since the country’s inception.
St. Patrick’s Day in the Early 1800s
The oldest annual parade (still running) in the United States dates back to 1813. Savannah, Georgia, has been hosting their yearly event longer than any other city, and since their first parade, they have had an official committee planning the event.
Before a city could host a parade, it had to establish a committee to ensure everything ran smoothly. These committees don't just meet once a year, either. It takes officials in bigger cities an entire year to plan these events. At the time, not many cities had organized events like Savannah's. For example, New York held several small parades throughout the city before forming the New York City parade we know today.
St. Patrick’s Day in the Mid-1800s
During the mid-1800s, pubs and breweries began hosting annual events the evenings after the parades in hopes of profiting from the festivities. The country was facing another war, and people wanted more than a family-friendly parade to unwind.
During the Civil War, soldiers who couldn't go home for their hometowns' St. Patrick's Day parade would drown their sorrows at the nearest pub. This was really the first time the celebration of Ireland's patron saint became the pub-hopping event it tends to be today.
St. Patrick’s Day in the Late-1800s
In the late 1800s, several New York Irish Aid societies combined their parades to form an official New York City St. Patrick's Day parade. Today, this parade is the largest in the United States, with more than 150,000 people participating.
Every year, about 3 million people watch the parade along the 1.5-mile route, taking over five hours. In 2020, the NYC parade was one of the first major events to be canceled due to COVID-19. The parades in New York, and throughout the country, resumed in 2022.
St. Patrick’s Day Becomes a Public Holiday, 1904
After cities around the world began organizing their St. Patrick's Day parades and festivities, the next step was to make it a public holiday. Until the 1900s, it had always been celebrated as a religious holiday.
Ireland was the first to declare St. Patrick's Day a public holiday. Here in the United States, we observe the day to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland. However, we do not treat it as a public holiday. Unless it falls on the weekend, kids don't get the day off school, and the banks and post offices are still open.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, 1904
In 1904, while Ireland declared St. Patrick's Day a public holiday, cities like New York continued to focus on the religious aspect of the day. These cities would hold mass each morning before beginning the celebrations like the original Irish traditions of Feast Day.
In this photo, we see St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York circa 1904. The church is still there, holding mass on St. Patrick's Day (and throughout the year).
Parades in the Cities, the Early 1900s
As the cities began organizing their St. Patrick's Day events, schools followed suit. In Iowa, college students organized parades to honor Irish immigrant students at the schools.
Here was see students at one Iowa college marching on campus at a 1910 St. Patrick's Day celebration wearing top hats and dressed in suits. They even had a Grand Marshall they wheeled around in a wheelbarrow throughout the parade route.
Making the News, 1912
This paper from March 17, 1912, featured its major headlines in a St. Patrick’s Day theme layout. While other countries, and even here in the United States, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day primarily as a religious holiday before, it really became more of a secular celebration in the early 1900s.
More people were interested in partying than paying homage to a religious figure. While today we still honor St. Patrick, we really do tend to focus on the party than the saint.
St. Patrick’s Day, 1914
In this photo from 1914, the ISC Engineering students display their Irish pride to honor St. Patrick, who, to them, was the patron saint of all engineers. Here students from Iowa State University gather in front of Engineering Hall (later known as Marston) before parading along the tracks to celebrate in downtown Ames.
There are other photos taken during the 1914 St. Patrick's Day celebration (previously shown) of these same students marching through campus toward the festivities downtown.
Irish-Americans and the Boom of St. Patrick’s Day Parades
In the early 1900s, Irish Americans soon began to realize that their large and growing population gave them untapped political power. They began to organize, and electoral districts known as "green machines" became important swing votes for political candidates.
Suddenly, the St. Patrick's Day Parade became an Irish-American show of force and a must-attend event for many political candidates. In fact, it wouldn't be long before Presidents began attending these events.
St. Patrick’s Day During Prohibition
Under the Intoxicating Liquor Act of 1927, public houses were ordered to close on St Patrick’s Day to keep patrons from drinking alcohol illegally during the prohibition era. When that happened, some festivities surrounding St. Patrick's Day celebrations lost their glamour.
In this picture, we can see city officials pouring bottles of liquor down the drain after a raid at a public house that was serving alcohol to patrons during a St. Patrick's Day parade.
St. Patrick’s Day, Boston 1940s
In 1947, Boston celebrated St. Patrick's Day paying special homage to Evacuation Day (the day the British left Boston on St. Patrick's Day in 1776). Mayor James Michael Curley is seen here with his wife, Gertrude. Accompanying the couple is Edward J. “Knocko” McCormack in his Yankee Division uniform.
When Boston first began hosting their annual parade, it was meant to commemorate the day the British left. However, throughout the years, the celebration has centered its focus on the patron saint of Ireland.
President Truman at NYC Parade, 1948
Not long after leaving a joint session of Congress discussing the Soviet threat in Europe, President Harry S. Truman is seen shaking hands with the Governor of New York, Thomas Dewey, at the 1948 New York City annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.
It was a proud moment for many Irish Americans who had ancestors that fought racial prejudice and stereotypes to find acceptance in the New World.
City of Philadelphia, 1954
In 1954, the St. Patrick's Day parade in Philadelphia was held on April 10th that year. The Philadelphia Mounted Police led the parade hoisting both the American and Irish flags.
There are no known reports as to why the city decided to delay its celebration and host their parade nearly a month later. However, many of the local high schools were honored during the event, making it well worth the wait for many young students.
Chicago Dyes the River, 1962
As the Irish American population spread throughout the country, varying traditions began surrounding St. Patrick's Day celebrations. In a tradition that began in 1962, officials in Chicago started dying the Chicago River in celebration of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade they host.
There is some controversy surrounding this tradition, and no, it has nothing to do with whether placing dye in the river is safe (don't worry, it is). According to Savannah residents, they dyed their river first (once several years prior), accusing Chicago of stealing their tradition.
Philly Celebrates St. Patrick’s Day with New Buses, 1963
In 1963, Philadelphia decided to celebrate by launching 100 new buses in its mass transit system. As the population began to bloom, with more Irish Americans moving to Philly, they wanted to be able to accommodate the boost.
That was why the Mayor and other city officials put together the plan to launch the new buses. It turned out to be an excellent investment for the city, and residents appreciated the added convenience, especially the Irish immigrants who couldn't afford to buy cars.
Cardinal Dougherty High School, NYC Parade 1968
New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade has one tradition that began when the first city-wide parade started in the late 1800s. Every year, several high schools from around the country are honored at the event.
In 1968, Cardinal Dougherty High School honor students from Philadelphia marched during the parade. Students that didn't get to participate reportedly traveled to New York to cheer on their classmates from the sidelines. What an exciting time that must have been for them all.
St. Monica’s Catholic School, 1972
Schools that didn't get to participate in the New York City St. Patrick's Day parade would often get to participate in the parade hosted by their hometown. For example, here we see the students from St. Monica's Roman Catholic School in Manchester, Pennsylvania, performing an Irish jig at their 1972 parade.
While the holiday was always meant to celebrate St. Patrick, it had long been an event centered around families and children. As it evolved into an event centered around drinking, many cities didn't want to lose the family dynamic of the event. For that reason, many of the smaller towns would make sure they centered their parades on the children.
Temple University Students Celebrate, 1978
In college towns, the story was a little different. In the late 1970s, more brew pubs would host St. Patrick's Day events centered around the college students in the town.
Here we see Temple University students at their local pub drinking pints of dark ale. We presume they are wearing green, but there is no way of telling, so we think they all deserve a good pinch. By the way, does anyone know what started the tradition of pinching someone not wearing green?
St. Patrick’s Day at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the 1980s
Since St. Patrick's Day has always been a Catholic holiday, it's no wonder St. Patrick's Cathedral has been holding Sunday Mass for St. Patrick's Day since it opened its doors.
In the 1980s, there was another boost in the population of Irish Americans in New York City, requiring the church to have more than one mass. Today, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York conducts several mass services throughout the St. Patrick's Day celebration.
Some 80’s Traditions
One tradition that stopped in the 1980s was the closing of local businesses on St. Patrick's Day. Companies used to close on St. Patrick's Day to allow employees to spend time with their families. All that changed when more establishments besides pubs wanted to cash in on the foot traffic generated by the parades and other festivities. Budweiser was one company that really pushed for this initiative.
At the time, many small bars and brew pubs would remain closed for the holiday, but Budweiser pushed for all businesses to stay open in hopes the smaller establishments would help them sell their green beer. The Mayor of New York, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., ensured the Grand Marshall made his way through the crowds before the parade to remind residents that local businesses would be open to serve them.
St. Patrick’s Day, NYC for Liberation, the 1990s
The '90s were all about liberation, and for the first time, New York City parade participants were allowed to carry signs other than the traditional ones. Mainly, they were authorized by the parade committee to hold signage that urged the English to leave Northern Ireland.
The new banners proclaimed, "Immigrations Reform Now," and the "England Get Out Of Ireland." These signs were the work of the Irish Immigration Reform Movement in response to the wave of new Irish immigrants taking refuge from the economic turmoil in Ireland at the time.
New Traditions in Ireland, 1995
Until the mid-1990s, St. Patrick's Day was strictly a religious holiday in Ireland. While the rest of the world's celebrations were more secular, the country remained traditional. In fact, Irish laws restricted pubs from opening on March 17 until the 1970s, although mandates still prohibited patronage for certain residents.
By 1995, all that would change when the Irish government began a nationwide campaign to drive tourism to Ireland by lifting the mandates. Without much prodding, the laws were quickly overturned, enabling Ireland to showcase its rich culture to the rest of the world.
St. Patrick’s Day after Y2K
By the turn of the millennium, the world was ready to party. We had just survived the uncertainty of Y2K. If you don't know what that is, think of every sci-fi movie where computers crash and the world collapses. That's what we all feared.
So, when that didn't happen, we were ready to party! In this photo from a Boston St. Patrick's Day event in 2000, we see just how ready everyone was to get down. (Is anyone else curious about the two in the front wearing full-body green screen suits?)
St. Patrick’s for the Children
While many of us think of St. Patrick’s Day as a day of partying and bar hopping, there are still a ton of festivities centered around children at each event. In some cities, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated much like Halloween, with the traditional shamrock and leprechaun costumes and not-so-traditional costumes, like Smurfs and flower pots.
In this photo from the early 2000s, local businesses host costume contests for children and parents alike. Although, it looks like the girl pushing the stroller is not having a good time. Yikes!
The Largest Celebrations in America
New York City has hosted some of the most extravagant St. Patrick’s Day celebrations over the years. While Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade has been featured in movies, such as The Fugitive, and is quite a large celebration, it does not compare to the parades and parties hosted by officials and residents alike in New York.
The New York City parade honors every Fire Department, Police Department, and First Responders Units in the city. Here we see the bagpipers and other band members from one of the local police stations from the 2010 New York City St. Patrick's Day parade.
St. Patrick’s Day in Hollywood
Don’t think that just because cities like Philly, Boston, Chicago, and New York have fantastic celebrations, that places like Hollywood don’t put on a good show.
One of the favorites for parade-goers is when the local Hot Rod club participates in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Here we see one rolling down the road at the celebration in 2015.
St. Patrick’s Day in the UK
In the mid-2010s, Peterborough in the United Kingdom hosted a St. Patrick's Day celebration where partiers painted their faces white and performed mime, along with other silent performances.
These street performances were caught on camera and posted online for the world to see. As the event went viral on the internet, attendance in subsequent years grew as people flocked to the Peterborough St. Patrick's Day celebrations.
St. Patrick’s at St. Patrick’s
While cities all over the work celebrate, none do it quite like the St. Patrick's Cathedral in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. During their parade, a group of parishioners walks the route carrying a giant puppet of St. Patrick.
One person operates each arm, and a third controls the puppet's body. The oversized saint holds a shamrock in one hand and a staff in the other. The giant St. Patrick puppet is a favorite among the children who attend the event.
St. Patrick’s Big Metal Dog
While many festivities feature parade floats with traditional Irish themes, sometimes you attend an event with some unique characters. One year in the late 2010s, a New Jersey town had a float made by a local Irish Aid society with a giant metal dog in it.
In this particular Mid-west parade, there were actually two metal dogs featured in this St. Patrick’s Day event. There was the one pictured here, along with one that closely resembled the creature in The Never Ending Story.
St. Patrick’s Day in Argentina
In Argentina, St. Patrick's Day celebrations have become a tradition in the city to celebrate the Irish culture and the vast Irish presence in the country. According to the Almirante Brown Association, when the Irish immigrants moved to the country, they brought their rich culture and religious celebrations with them.
As a result, the entire country wanted these immigrants to feel warmed and welcomed, adopting their traditions and celebrating their history and beloved patron saint. Today, an estimated 500,000 Irish people in Argentina are honored each year on March 17th.
The History of the Irish Jig
Countries all over Europe have been performing jigs since the 16th Century. This Celtic dance is performed during celebrations most commonly in Ireland and Scotland and became a staple at St. Patrick's Day celebrations by the 17th Century.
A traditional Irish jig is a series of steps and hops that repeat over again. These steps are incredibly simple, either stepping forward or backward, yet some of the hops may require a little practice in timing and coordination to get it right.
Why Kilts and Bagpipes?
Kilts and bagpipes are a Scottish tradition, making many ask why we celebrate an Irish holiday with Scottish symbols. It's because bagpipes were and still are common throughout Europe and are certainly not unique to Scotland or Ireland.
However, it is the close historical ties between these countries and their Celtic heritage that give the bagpipes their place in every Scottish or Irish celebration, and why we see bagpipers at St. Patrick's Day events.
Why Green and Not Blue?
Although blue is the color traditionally associated with St. Patrick of Ireland, green is most commonly associated with this day. Why you ask? For one, we can thank Palladius, the other St. Patrick, known for his admiration for the color green.
Irish and non-Irish people usually partake in "green wear" — wearing a green garment or a shamrock, Ireland's national plant, on the lapel. Food and drinks (even beer) are sometimes colored green to celebrate the (wrong) patron saint.
One symbol of St. Patrick's Day that many wonder how it made its way into the holiday's tradition is leprechauns. According to Irish folklore, these magical creatures are known for their Celtic origins, and the reason they have a significant place in many Irish traditions, including St. Patrick's Day.
These folklores are why we pinch each other for not wearing green on St. Patrick's Day. These Irish fables warn that leprechauns are tricksters that like to pinch and will do so if you aren't wearing green.
Does that mean we're doing the work of the little tricksters when we pinch each other?
Have you ever wondered why we drink so much Guinness beer on St. Patrick’s Day and not one of the many other famed Irish ales available? The answer is simple and can be traced back to Ireland itself. Like many other St. Patrick’s Day traditions, drinking Guinness has been a longstanding tradition in Ireland.
The brand has more than 250 years of history between itself and St. Patrick’s beloved country, with a reputation for upstanding company values. Guinness really encompasses what Ireland is all about, its people. For that reason, it remains a staple in Ireland, cementing its place in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations worldwide.
Montreal’s 195th Celebration, 2018
In 2018, Canada celebrated their 195th St. Patrick's Day festivities. In Newfoundland, officials made the day an official holiday. However, the oldest celebration is the annual event in Montreal, dating back to 1824.
The St. Patrick's Day parades have been organized by the United Irish Societies since 1928. This year, Montreal will be celebrating its 200th celebration!
Kids Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland
Even though the ’90s in Ireland were all about reforming the holiday from a religious event to one they could market to adult tourists as a place for drinking and partying, organizers still wanted to keep the focus on centering the event around families, especially the children.
Over the last few years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the children’s activities were canceled because of safety concerns. However, last year was one of the first years that nearly all children’s events were part of the festivities, and more are expected to be open this year.
St. Patrick's Day Celebrations Around the World
St. Patrick's Day is celebrated today by people from all walks of life and from all corners of the world, including the United States and Canada. While North America is home to the biggest celebrations, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated in places far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore, Australia, and Russia.
St. Patrick's Day began as a Feast day, and the traditional recipes include Irish soda bread, cornmeal and cabbage, and something called champ. In the Middle East, people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a special non-alcoholic brew along with its own traditional foods.
From St. Patrick to All Things Irish
It was the people, particularly those in the United States, who converted St. Patrick’s Day from the traditional religious holiday honoring Ireland’s patron saint into a largely secular celebration of all things Irish. Places with large numbers of Irish immigrants that often exerted political power staged the most extensive celebrations, including the most elaborate parades.
While St. Patrick's service to both God and the people of Ireland was the initial reason we began celebrating the day, it's the rich Irish culture deeply rooted in our society here in America that makes this such a special day for us all.