By Jim Miller
Today lots of people will try to skip out of work early to grab a pint of Guinness at a bar or perhaps find something green to wear whether they are Irish or not. St. Patrick’s Day, for most of us, is just a fun day to party, watch a parade, or listen to some Irish music. For better or worse, even if we aren’t getting drunk, we don’t think that much about it. Nonetheless, there are still some interesting bits of history behind the holiday.
The actual origins of the “Wearing of the Green” are political, dating back to 1798 when Irish soldiers wore green uniforms on March 17th to signal solidarity with the Society of United Irishmen whose aim it was to end British rule in Ireland. That’s when the song and the color green became synonymous with both rebellion and St. Patrick’s Day.
Before that in the United States, the first official St. Patrick’s Day came to be when George Washington proclaimed the holiday as a way to thank Irish soldiers fighting for the cause of American Independence in 1780. But there were celebrations before that in the United States dating back to as early as 1756 when the first St. Patty’s bash was held at the Crown and Thistle tavern in New York City.
In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has always been a relatively minor religious holiday to honor St. Patrick with the Catholic Church of Ireland marking it a holy day of obligation and solemnity. And the Catholic story of St. Patrick notes that:
Patrick was born around 385 in Scotland, probably Kilpatrick. His parents were Calpurnius and Conchessa, who were Romans living in Britain in charge of the colonies.
As a boy of fourteen or so, he was captured during a raiding party and taken to Ireland as a slave to herd and tend sheep. Ireland at this time was a land of Druids and pagans. He learned the language and practices of the people who held him.
During his captivity, he turned to God in prayer. He wrote
“The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was roused, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same.” “I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain.”
Patrick’s captivity lasted until he was twenty, when he escaped after having a dream from God in which he was told to leave Ireland by going to the coast. There he found some sailors who took him back to Britain, where he reunited with his family.
He had another dream in which the people of Ireland were calling out to him “We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk among us once more.” . . .
Patrick began preaching the Gospel throughout Ireland, converting many. He and his disciples preached and converted thousands and began building churches all over the country. Kings, their families, and entire kingdoms converted to Christianity when hearing Patrick’s message.
And after forty years, Ireland was Catholic and St. Patrick eventually became its patron saint. So goes that version of history.
But as with many of our modern holidays the story dates back even further than that and contemporary St. Patrick’s Day may be closer to its more ancient roots than the Catholic tradition suggests. Indeed, St. Patrick was supposed to have driven the Druids out of Ireland but the truth is that, as it did elsewhere, the Church merely incorporated aspects of earlier Pagan culture into Irish Catholicism.
In fact, the date of St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, corresponds with both earlier Celtic festivals and yet more ancient Roman practices. As Christopher Knowles notes in “The (Not So) Secret History of Saint Patrick’s Day”:
St. Patrick’s Day is also frequently a time for drinking. It used to be that this tradition was strung out for at least five days, the so-called seachtain na Gaeilage or “Irish week.”
That may stem from Roman times, when March 17 started the festival of the Bacchanalia, a celebration to the deity Bacchus, to whom wine was sacred. In olden years long gone by, the Irish drank mead, made from fermented honey. . . .
[Hence like many of] our modern holidays in America [which] are simply covert repackagings of ancient pagan festivals and the increasingly popular St. Patrick’s Day is no different. The Church took the Bacchanalia away from the Irish and replaced it with a boring religious holiday.
Thus, contrary to those who might sneer at the drunken revelry of St. Patrick’s Day as a boorish distortion of tradition, it’s actually probably truer to the real roots of March 17th Bacchanalia than the Catholic tradition which simply appropriated an ancient festival day.
So, as the Rolling Stones song advises, raise a glass to the hard working people and then raise another to mayors Bill de Blasio of New York City and Martin Walsh of Boston for not marching in their cities’ St. Patrick’s Day parades until they let our gay brothers and sisters join the party.