Saint Patrick (Latin: Patricius; Irish: Pádraig, Old Irish: Cothraige) was a 5th-century Romano-British Christian missionary and bishop in Ireland. Known as the “Apostle of Ireland”, he is the primary patron saint of Ireland, along with saints Brigit of Kildare and Columba. He is also venerated in the Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Church, and in the Eastern Orthodox Church as equal-to-apostles and the Enlightener of Ireland. You can go to a ton of websites about his life based on available sources, legend and speculation. I don’t see much point in repeating all that stuff here. Rather, I’d like to focus on how St Patrick’s Day has become a world-wide booze up. It looks very much as if this has come about because of the long-term popularity of the St Patrick’s Day parade and associated activities in New York City, and also in the Irish diaspora. It wasn’t until the 20th century that St Patrick’s Day became a public holiday in Ireland, and at the time it was linked to Irish nationalism.
Saint Patrick’s feast day, as a kind of national day, was already being celebrated by the Irish in Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries. In later times, he became more and more widely seen as the patron of Ireland. Saint Patrick’s feast day was finally placed on the universal liturgical calendar in the Catholic Church due to the influence of Waterford-born Franciscan scholar Luke Wadding in the early 17th century. Saint Patrick’s Day thus became a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics in Ireland. It is also a feast day in the Church of Ireland, which is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
In 1903, St Patrick’s Day became an official public holiday in Ireland. This was thanks to the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act 1903, an act of the United Kingdom Parliament introduced by Irish Member of Parliament James O’Mara. O’Mara later introduced the law which required that public houses be shut on 17 March after drinking got out of hand, a provision that was repealed in the 1970s.
The first St Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland was held in Waterford in 1903. The week of St Patrick’s Day 1903 had been declared Irish Language Week by the Gaelic League and in Waterford they opted to have a procession on Sunday 15 March. The procession consisted of the Mayor and members of Waterford Corporation, the Trades Hall, the various trade unions and bands who included the ‘Barrack St Band’ and the ‘Thomas Francis Meagher Band’. The parade began at the premises of the Gaelic League in George’s St and finished in the Peoples Park, where the public were addressed by the Mayor and other dignitaries. On Tuesday 17 March, most Waterford businesses—including public houses—were closed and marching bands paraded as they had two days previously.
On St Patrick’s Day 1916, the Irish Volunteers – an Irish nationalist paramilitary organization – held parades throughout Ireland. The authorities recorded 38 St Patrick’s Day parades, involving 6,000 marchers, almost half of whom were said to be armed. The following month, the Irish Volunteers launched the Easter Rising against British rule. This marked the beginning of the Irish revolutionary period and led to the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. During this time, St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland were muted, although the day was sometimes chosen to hold large political rallies. The celebrations remained low-key after the creation of the Irish Free State; the only state-organized observance was a military procession and trooping of the colours, and an Irish-language mass attended by government ministers. In 1927, the Irish Free State government banned the selling of alcohol on St Patrick’s Day, although it remained legal in Northern Ireland. The ban was not repealed until 1961.
The first official, state-sponsored St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin took place in 1931. But it was not until the mid-1990s that the government of the Republic of Ireland began a campaign to use St Patrick’s Day to showcase Ireland and its culture, and pumped money into a Dublin parade. As an educated guess I’d be inclined to say that St Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations became bigger and more extravagant in the Irish Diaspora than in Ireland, especially in the United States, because there was a much greater need for a sense of identity and unity among immigrants than within the home community.
The Charitable Irish Society of Boston organized the first observance of Saint Patrick’s Day in the Thirteen Colonies in 1737. The celebration was not Catholic in nature, because Irish immigration to the colonies had been dominated by Protestants. The society’s purpose in gathering was simply to honor its homeland, and although they continued to meet annually to coordinate charitable works for the Irish community in Boston, they did not meet on 17 March again until 1794. During the observance of the day, individuals attended a service of worship and a special dinner.
New York’s first Saint Patrick’s Day observance was similar to that of Boston. It was held on 17 March 1762 in the home of John Marshall, an Irish Protestant, and over the next few years informal gatherings by Irish immigrants were the norm. The first recorded parade in New York was by Irish soldiers in the British Army in 1766. The first documented St. Patrick’s Day Celebration in Philadelphia was held in 1771. Philadelphia’s Friendly Sons of St. Patrick was found to honor St. Patrick and to provide relief to Irish immigrants in the city. Irish Americans have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in Philadelphia since their arrival in North America. General George Washington, a member of Philadelphia’s Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, actively encouraged Irish American patriots to join the Continental Army. In 1780, while camped in Morristown, NJ, General Washington allowed his troops a holiday on 17 March “as an act of solidarity with the Irish in their fight for independence.”
Irish patriotism in New York City continued to soar, and the parade in New York City continued to grow, as immigration mounted (along with anti-Irish sentiment). Irish aid societies, such as Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society, marched in the parades, and when many of these aid societies joined forces in 1848 (during the Irish Potato Famine), the parade became not only the largest parade in the United States but one of the largest in the world.
The City of Savannah, Georgia, has hosted Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations since 1824. Festivities begin more than a week in advance with communal rituals and commemorative ceremonies, such as the St. Patrick`s Parade. Such events were the main factors in shaping Irish-American identity as recognized today. Leading up to the 1870s, Irish-American identity in the United States was reworked through the shifting character of the Saint Patrick’s Day rituals which featured a rhetoric of vengeance against Britain for creating the dire conditions that provoked the mass exodus from Ireland, and of increasing sectarian, yet Catholic, nationalism.
The New York parade not only has become the largest Saint Patrick’s Day parade in the world but is also the oldest civilian parade in the world. In a typical year, 150,000 marchers participate in it, including bands, firefighters, military and police groups, county associations, emigrant societies and social and cultural clubs, while an average of 2 million spectators line the streets, and millions more watch on television. The parade marches up the 1.5-mile route along 5th Avenue in Manhattan, takes five hours to complete, and is always led by the 69th Infantry Regiment (New York). The commissioner of the parade always asks the commanding officer if the 69th is ready, to which the response is, “The 69th is always ready.” New York politicians—or those running for office—are always found prominently marching in the parade. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (who was of Jewish ethnicity) once proclaimed himself “Ed O’Koch” for the day, and he continued to wear an Irish sweater and march every year up until 2003, even though he was no longer in office.
For many years the parade banned gay groups, saying groups could not display banners identifying their sexuality. On September 3, 2014, the organizers of the parade announced a decision to lift the ban on gay groups, saying they preferred to keep the parade non-political and the ban was having the opposite effect. In 2015 OUT@NBCUniversal, an organization of gay employees of NBCUniversal, became the first gay group to march in the parade.
In the U.S. corned beef and cabbage is the overdetermined dish of the day, even though there is precious little that is Irish about it. I followed suit for a number of years because it’s a nice enough meal, and corned beef was always on sale. When I left the United States I switched gears to more conventional Irish cooking. Pictured are my colcannon and lamb stew from years past, both of which you are far more likely to encounter in Ireland than corned beef and cabbage. Lamb stew with onions, potatoes, carrots, and suet dumplings is often referred to as Irish stew in England. It’s really no more than a one pot dish that was the norm of rural cooking across northern Europe. That is, you keep a meat stock simmering on the fire, and add what’s available day to day. There’s no recipe as such.
A classic Irish stew these days is normally a mix of lamb that has been browned and then simmered with onions until tender. Then add diced carrots and potatoes and cook them through. Finally add suet dumplings – for me, the best part. Mix together equal portions of shredded suet and all purpose flour. Add a little baking powder and then moisten with cold water to form a stiff, fairly dry dough. Roll into balls about the size of a walnut, or bigger if you like, and cook them in the stew as it simmers. They will cook in about 15 minutes and float to the top. You can also thicken the stew at the end with flour if you like. Mix the flour with cold water in a bowl until it is well blended. Then whisk in some of the broth from the pot. Add this mixture slowly back to the pot, stirring as you do. Bring back to a simmer and let cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve in deep bowls with soda bread.