Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, lived during the fifth century. He was born in Britain and was brought to Ireland as a slave when he was 16. He escaped captivity and is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. Legend has it that he used a shamrock, a three leafed clover, to explain the Holy Trinity. Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th, the anniversary of his death.
People have celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day since the ninth or tenth century. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade occurred in a Spanish colony now known as St. Augustine, Florida, on March 17, 1601. In 1772 homesick Irish soldiers serving in the English military in New York City held a parade to honor this Irish patron saint.
Irish patriotism among American immigrants grew, giving rise to Irish Aid societies. Each group held a St Patrick’s Day parade featuring bagpipes. Several of the societies united their parades in 1848 to form the official Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. The annual St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City is the world’s largest civilian parade.
Most Irish immigrants in America were members of the Protestant middle class. With the advent of the Great Potato Famine, close to a million Irish Catholics fled from Ireland to America. They were depicted in newspaper cartoons as drunk, violent monkey when they celebrated St. Patrick’s Day.
With their growing numbers they started to organize and formed the “green machine” voting bloc. St. Patrick’s Day parades became a “must attend” event for political candidates.
Irish immigrant communities throughout America developed their own traditions. In Chicago, the Chicago River is dyed green in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day. Up until the 1970s pubs were barred from opening on St. Patrick’s Day. However, in 1995 the Irish government began a campaign to foster interest in St. Patrick’s Day to drive tourism to Ireland and allowed pubs to be open on March 17.
The leprechaun is an icon of St. Patrick’s Day, even though it has its own special day in May. Its Irish name is “labaircin”, a small bodied fellow. Leprechauns are known for their trickery, used to protect their fabled treasures.
Now you know the history behind all the symbols associated with St. Patrick's Day!