While living in Dublin I was pretty surprised to find out that St. Patrick’s Day is nowhere near as big in Ireland as it tends to be in the United States, especially since the holiday originated in Ireland. This got me wondering why, so I did a little research.
In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of St. Patrick, and therefore a religious holiday. St. Patrick was the patron saint of Ireland, who lived in Ireland in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. He wasn’t Irish; in fact, he was a Romano-Briton who was captured by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland as a slave. In Ireland, St. Patrick was traditionally celebrated for the missionary work he performed in Ireland and is credited with bringing Christianity to the country; the holiday is therefore a religious holiday, similar to Christmas and Easter – it’s not a celebration of Ireland like it is in the United States. These days you can find St. Patrick’s Day parades, shamrocks, and free-flowing Guinness in Ireland, but it’s mostly there because the tourists wanted it there. If not for them, it would likely have remained a day of solemnity; in fact, up until 1970 Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on St. Patrick’s Day.
So why did St. Patrick’s Day come to be such a huge deal in the United States? To Americans, especially those 36.5 million with Irish heritage, it represents something quite different than it does to the Irish living in Ireland. When close to a million poor Irish Catholics immigrated to the United States during the Great Potato Famine in the mid-1800s, they were despised for their religious beliefs and had a hard time finding even menial jobs. The first St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States were met with contempt. When the Irish began to realize that their great numbers gave them political power, they started to organize themselves into a force. Annual St. Patrick’s Day parades, that started not in Ireland but in New York City in March of 1762, were a demonstration of strength and solidarity among a people who, at that time, were for the most part unwelcome in protestant America.
So to Irish Americans and those claiming Irish American descent, a population that currently stands at about nine times the population of Ireland itself, St. Patrick’s Day means much more than the celebration of a religious figure – it’s a day that came to represent the strength and pride of the Irish people in a foreign land. And as such it has a very important meaning here – tens of millions of Americans are both proud to be American, and proud to be of Irish ancestry. On March 17th comes their chance to celebrate as such.