St. Patrick’s Day is one of those holidays that we celebrate without usually knowing why. The Irish culture lends itself pretty well to revelry – music, dancing, food and drink and a raucous spirit – so it comes to no surprise that St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most anticipated events of the year. But where did it come really from?
It turns out that the holiday didn’t come from Ireland as much as we assumed.
While St. Patrick is celebrated globally, even in regions where there are barely any Irish people, the day as we know it is an American-Irish invention.
Historically, St. Patrick’s Day was created on the death date of Saint Patrick, the Saint of Ireland, who lived until 461 A.D. In the 17th century, the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, Eastern Orthodox Church and the Lutheran Church made March 17 a Christian day of feasting in honour of Saint Patrick and the beginning of Christianity in Ireland (Patrick converted the Irish pagans into Christians, apparently).
According to scholars, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day was not a common occurrence in Ireland until the late 20th century. Because it was treated as a primarily religious holiday, most people would attend church and end the merriment there, keeping the day quiet – no parades, no spectacles, no bars.
In fact, Irish bars remained closed on March 17 until the 1960s, according to Mike Cronin, a historian with Boston College. Cronin authored a TIME magazine story, “How America Invented St. Patrick’s Day”, stating that celebrations in Ireland didn’t really begin until 1996 when the four-day St. Patrick’s Festival was inaugurated.
But it wasn’t a push from Ireland that caused the holiday to grow.
Cronin recalls earlier celebrations in America’s predominant Irish communities, including Boston, Chicago and New York. According to his article, it was the stereotypes, prejudices and racism directed at Irish immigrants that caused the communities to take ownership of their culture and create identity.
North America saw a great influx of Irish immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, but like many immigrant classes of the day, the Irish were not viewed favourably by those already settled in America, and were seen as villainous, violent, drunk and dirty.
“Through the use of symbols and speeches, Irish-Americans celebrated their Catholicism and patron saint and praised the spirit of Irish nationalism in the old country, but they also stressed their patriotic belief in their new home,” says Cronin.
Parades and celebrations effectively embraced Irish culture and spread the revelry beyond the Irish diaspora into mainstream culture. The green shamrock, iconic because St. Patrick was said to have explained the Christian trinity using the three-leaf clover, became unanimous with the holiday, along with green beer.
By the late 20th century, St. Patrick’s Day was a global celebration and one of the biggest party holidays of the year.
Though Vancouver did not have an official St. Patrick’s event until the inaugural CelticFest in 2013, one of the longest-running parades in North America has been occurring in Montreal since 1824, with known celebrations happening as far back at 1759.
Unlike the Atlantic coast, Vancouver’s Irish history isn’t impressive. While 12 per cent of people here claim Irish heritage, there is no Irish quarter or bustling community, other than a few networks and sporting clubs.
Nevertheless, Vancouver doesn’t ignore the schmaltzy appeal of the Gaelic festivities. Clubs, bars and restaurants have been operating special St. Patrick’s Day parties and events all week long, creating the the mass merriment early Irish immigrants would be proud of.
Whether you’re recognizing the holiday with green beer or a green matcha latte, happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Now, let Liam Neeson’s sweet voice take you through a true Irish holiday…