St. Patrick’s Day in the United States:
St. Patrick’s Day, although not a legal holiday anywhere in the United States, is nonetheless widely recognised and celebrated throughout the country. It is primarily observed as a celebration of Irish and Irish American culture; celebrations include prominent displays of the colour green, feasting, copious consumption of alcohol, religious observances, and numerous parades. The holiday has been celebrated on the North American continent since the late eighteenth century.
Saint Patrick Himself:
Little is known of Patrick’s early life, though it is known that he was born in Roman Britain in the fourth century, into a wealthy Romano-British family. His father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest in the Christian church. At the age of sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken captive to Ireland as a slave. It is believed he was held somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, possibly Mayo, but the exact location is unknown. According to his Confession, he was told by God in a dream to flee from captivity to the coast, where he would board a ship and return to Britain. Upon returning, he quickly joined the Church in Auxerre in Gaul and studied to be a priest.
In 432, he again said that he was called back to Ireland, though as a bishop, to Christianise the Irish from their native polytheism. Irish folklore tells that one of his teaching methods included using the shamrock to explain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to the Irish people. After nearly thirty years of evangelism, he died on 17 March 461, and according to tradition, was buried at Downpatrick. Although there were other more successful missions to Ireland from Rome, Patrick endured as the principal champion of Irish Christianity and is held in esteem in the Irish church.
Wearing of the green:
Originally, the colour associated with Saint Patrick was blue. Over the years the colour green and its association with Saint Patrick’s Day grew. Green ribbons and shamrocks were worn in celebration of St Patrick’s Day as early as the 17th century. Saint Patrick is said to have used the shamrock, a three-leaved plant, to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish, and the wearing and display of shamrocks and shamrock-inspired designs have become a ubiquitous feature of the day. In the 1798 rebellion, to make a political statement, Irish soldiers wore full green uniforms on 17 March in hopes of catching public attention. The phrase “the wearing of the green”, meaning to wear a shamrock on one’s clothing, derives from a song of the same name.
The first festival:
The first Saint Patrick’s Festival was held on 17 March 1996. In 1997, it became a three-day event, and by 2000 it was a four-day event. By 2006, the festival was five days long; more than 675,000 people attended the 2009 parade. Overall 2009’s five-day festival saw close to 1 million visitors, who took part in festivities that included concerts, outdoor theatre performances, and fireworks. Skyfest forms the centrepiece of the festival.
The topic of the 2004 St. Patrick’s Symposium was “Talking Irish”, during which the nature of Irish identity, economic success, and the future were discussed. Since 1996, there has been a greater emphasis on celebrating and projecting a fluid and inclusive notion of “Irishness” rather than an identity based around traditional religious or ethnic allegiance. The week around Saint Patrick’s Day usually involves Irish language speakers using more Irish during Seachtain na Gaeilge (“Irish Language Week”).
As well as Dublin, many other cities, towns, and villages in Ireland hold their own parades and festivals, including Cork, Belfast, Derry, Galway, Kilkenny, Limerick, and Waterford.
The biggest celebrations outside Dublin are in Downpatrick, County Down, where Saint Patrick is rumoured to be buried. In 2004, according to Down District Council, the week-long St. Patrick’s Festival had more than 2,000 participants and 82 floats, bands, and performers and was watched by more than 30,000 people.
Christian leaders in Ireland have expressed concern about the secularisation of St Patrick’s Day. In The Word magazine’s March 2007 issue, Fr. Vincent Twomey wrote, “It is time to reclaim St Patrick’s Day as a church festival.” He questioned the need for “mindless alcohol-fuelled revelry” and concluded that “it is time to bring the piety and the fun together.”