St. Patrick's Day: The Irish day that's not so Irish

St. Patrick's Day used to be a day the Irish reserved to humbly remember their patron saint. Even though it became more about culture and turned into a universal party, it doesn't really represent true Irish culture anymore, let alone celebrate a religious man.

True Irish culture is more than green beer, shamrocks and leprechauns

The city of Chicago has dyed the Chicago River green every year since 1962 to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. (James Foster/Associated Press)

St. Patrick's Day is not what it once was.

What started as a celebration of a religious man has turned into a universal party. Maybe that point is evidenced by Guinness Canada's recent mistake of putting a four-leaf clover in a TTC ad for the festivities instead of the traditional shamrock, leading to some controversy.
Leprechauns and everything green have become universal symbols of St. Patrick's Day celebrations. (Dima Gavrysh/Associated Press)

"Guinness of all people should know what the difference between a clover and a shamrock is," lamented Peter Shea, historian for the St. Patrick's Society of Montreal.

A Toronto Irishman brought the issue to the brewery's attention, and the company apologized and said it would remove the ads.

Shea concedes it might be because Guinness is no longer an Irish-owned company and it's part of the evolution of the celebration, which he attributes to the "secularization of society."

So how has St. Patrick's Day evolved from its first humble celebration in the early 17th century to a day that Ireland's tourism website says is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival?

The evolution of St. Patrick's Day

The shamrock is a national symbol of Ireland and St. Patrick's Day. It is said that St. Patrick used the three-leaf clover to explain the Holy Trinity to the Irish people. (Dima Gavrysh/Associated Press)

St. Patrick's Day parades didn't originate in Ireland. In fact, the first parade started either in Boston in 1737 or in New York City in 1762, depending on the account you read. Encyclopaedia Britannica says it was Boston, but the History Channel claims it was NYC.

In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day was largely a religious holiday, celebrated with religious services and feasts. In fact, Ireland itself didn't have its own parade until 1903, according to But it was Irish emigrants to North America who transformed the day into a secular holiday of "revelry and celebrations of things Irish," as Encyclopaedia Britannica describes it. 

Today, St. Patrick's Day is most commonly paired with drinking large amounts of beer – particularly green beer – shamrocks and leprechauns.

Shea says the evolution of the day reflects change in society in general. "Religious observance is not what it was in the 1920s or '30s. Attendance of all church denominations is down. We've evolved into a more secular society than we were 50 or 100 years ago. St. Patrick's Day is a nationalist celebration instead of a religious celebration now."

St. Patrick's Day had been a low-key, religious holiday where pubs were closed and people went to mass, says Robert Savage, professor of Irish history at Boston College. But he says now, the Irish fully embrace the celebration of St. Patrick's Day and it's because Ireland has become more secular.  

"I think it's partly because the profile of the Catholic church has been greatly diminished. The church has lost its moral authority and Ireland has become more European, more cosmopolitan and less religious," Savage said.

Irish traditions not so Irish?

But even if St. Patrick's Day is now a nationalist celebration, Shea doesn't think it's necessarily become an accurate representation of the Irish. 

"The green hair and the green beer … they're not really representative of what the pride in Irish culture is all about," he said.

Today's parade in New York will be the city's 255th. It is the world's largest St. Paddy's parade. (Dima Gavrysh/Associated Press)

The Irish people understand those who want to celebrate and have a good time, Shea said, but traditionalists think the celebrations go too far if all the public sees is drinking as Irish celebration. He said it's possible to celebrate your Irish heritage without overdoing it in the imbibing department.

The festivities don't always portray Irish culture, agrees George McDonnell, vice-president for the Irish Heritage Society of Canada.

"It's been dressed up a lot. It's been Americanized, the joyful aspect of it. The Irish aspect is the religious aspect," he said

But McDonnell also notes St. Patrick's Day is a celebration of all things Irish at its heart.

"Everybody wants to be Irish on St. Patrick's Day," McDonnell said. "They want to drink green beer and have everything associated with green."

There are many Irish societies and clubs all over the world, he says, which he interprets as a healthy interest in Irish culture.

"While [St. Patrick's Day] has changed, it hasn't really changed," he said, meaning that the world's love for everything Irish is very much alive.

Savage says the festivities more accurately portray Irish-American and Irish-Canadian culture.

"That's an important distinction. The green beer, Chicago dyeing the river green is unique; it's more Irish-American. … It's a type of Irishness developed here in the United States. It's not that they are phoney or fake, but Irishness has evolved differently for many people in the United States," the professor said.

History of St. Paddy's Day

Accounts about the history of the holiday differ, but according to the History Channel, St. Patrick's Day was originally a day where the Irish celebrated St. Patrick, Ireland's patron saint.

St. Patrick was kidnapped from his British home at age 16 and taken to Ireland. Although he escaped, he returned there years later to convert the Irish to Christianity. He also established monasteries, churches and schools. He is said to have died on March 17 in 461.

St. Patrick's Day didn't become the secular holiday it is today until Irish emigrants moved to the United States.

New York City is considered the birthplace of the parade, in 1762, and the parade is still the world's largest, attracting more than two million spectators annually and taking up to six hours. Boston, Chicago and Dublin also have widely acclaimed parades.

In Canada, Montreal hosts one of the longest-running and largest St. Patrick's Day parades in North America. The parade has occurred there every year since 1824.

This St. Patrick's Day is of special importance in Ireland, as it is the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. The rising was an armed insurrection by Irish rebels during Easter week in an attempt to end British rule and make Ireland independent. More than 450 people were killed and many more were wounded during the attacks.

The uprising was one of the defining moments of the Irish struggle for independence. Although the insurrection failed, Ireland officially became a free country in 1922. 


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