My Beautiful Wickedness

What Saint Patrick’s Day Really Is
March 17, 2008, 11:59 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

It seems like everything I read today is a variation on “Why do people celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day?” “What’s the meaning of Saint Patrick’s Day?” “Why do people get drunk on Saint Patrick’s Day?” etc…so I thought I’d save myself a lot of typing and just write this here.

It’s a Catholic feast day, where if you’re Catholic, you go to a Mass celebrating the life of a particular saint (or multiple saints…the Catholic Church is a pretty old outfit and so the saints have piled up). Every day has a different saint — the 17th is St. Patrick, the 18th is St. Cyril, the 19th is St. Joseph…you can find a full listing here:

Saint Patrick was a former Roman slave turned missionary who is principally credited with converting the island of Ireland from pagan to nominally Christian. He is associated with the shamrock, which he used as an instructional tool to explain the Trinity. He died on March 17, 461 AD — so Saint Patrick’s Day is the anniversary of his death, not the day in which he supposedly drove the snakes out of Ireland (something that modern historians chalk up to population expansion, deforestation, and climate change). He didn’t get his own day to honor until the 1600s. Now, it’s a holy day of obligation if you’re a Catholic living in Ireland; you must go to Mass. As it fell during Holy Week this year, the real Irish celebrated it on Saturday, March 15th.

Why do we celebrate it as we do in the US, turning it into a secular drinking holiday with parades? It’s been celebrated that way since 1762, when Irish troops deployed as part of the English army marched through NYC. In the mid-nineteenth century, the influx of Irish immigrants to the urban Northeast used it as an opportunity to show off their numbers and their muscle, the better to influence urban politics. In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, it was a chance for Catholic Irish-Americans to demonstrate their solidarity with occupied Ireland (as well as to express ethnic and religious pride at a time when being Irish and being Catholic was an impediment to economic and social equality). Remember that even the Kennedys (who worked very hard at being both fully elite and assimilated and as Irish machine politics as it gets) had to face a lot of bigotry in the early years of their political careers…

Now, Americans just seem to use it as an excuse to go out and get drunk…hard to see any particular political meaning in a celebration that seems designed to make Guinness and Harp money. (It’s sort of like Cinco de Mayo — much more important to beer companies than it is to people in Mexico) I’ve also heard that it’s becoming a big tourist event in Ireland now, as the Irish are trying to attract Yankee dollars by creating a new “authentic” Auld Sod ritual that Americans are willing to pay for.

But hey, you asked.


3 Comments so far
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While I always thought my genetics were on the wrong side of the Irish equation (My father’s father’s people being Orange as they came) I recently found out that my paternal grandmother, his wife, had ancestors who were Irish and still Catholic as late as 1688.

Go figure.

And as for my late husband, although his grandfather came from an orphanage in southern Ohio, the last name “Flynn” wasn’t just dropped on the baby–it came with him, so chances are, he was Irish too.

Comment by imfunny2

One of my younger students asked me on Monday why a friend of his thought it was funny that he was wearing orange on St. Patrick’s Day.

Comment by Gerald

Argh, you wear orange to kill the leprechaun!

Comment by bridgett

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