The Emerald Isle continues to celebrate the rich history of Ireland and the death of St. Patrick — and so does the rest of the world.

As children, St. Patrick’s Day consisted of elementary school get-togethers where we pinched classmates who forgot to wear green and made leprechaun hats while eating four-leaf clover cookies. Now, if we do anything at all, it is usually spending a night with friends, downing pint after pint of green beer or whatever other green concoction the bar is serving to celebrate the holiday. 

But that isn’t how it used to be. St. Patrick’s Day has been observed as a religious holiday for more than 1,000 years. March 17 is actually the anniversary of the death of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. The holiday falls during the Christian season of Lent, but Lenten constraints on eating meat were set aside for the day and people could drink and eat whatever they liked. But St. Patrick’s Day itself has seen some changes in how people celebrate it. 

Danny Gahan, professor of history, said St. Patrick’s Day started as a celebration in the 1500s and by the 1800s, the drinking and partying we know today began to emerge. 

But in the 1900s, the Catholic Church clamped down on the excess celebrating. Until the 1970s, there were laws that demanded pubs be closed on March 17 because of the religiousness of the holiday. When Gahan was a child in the 1960s, it was more of a family-centered and traditional day. It was actually those of Irish decent in America in the 1980s that brought back the party atmosphere of the holiday, which caught on in Ireland. 

Gahan, who hails from a small town about 60 miles south of Dublin, said the history surrounding St. Patrick could be found in the first chapter of any Irish history book. 

“St. Patrick coming to Ireland in A.D. 432 is the first day in history that Irish kids are taught,” he said. “Ireland became Ireland when he came.”

St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain and at age 16 was captured and brought to Ireland as a slave. After he escaped, he returned because he felt that he had been called to bring Christianity to Ireland. 

Sophomore Jesse Stafford-Lacey, a native of Tralee, recalls learning about how St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. Although, he does not remember there being a huge focus on learning about the history of the actual holiday in school. Instead, the history of St. Patrick himself and the myths surrounding him were emphasized. Arguably the most popular fable being that he banished all snakes from Ireland, but the country’s climate does not allow any snakes to inhabit it. 

Children in Ireland do not receive the same fanfare in school that American children do. Instead, school is canceled and most everyone has the day off work. So while schoolchildren in America celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the classroom, children in Ireland have different plans. 

Stafford-Lacey said his family always celebrated by going to the town parade — a common occurrence for Irish citizens.

“You get up in the morning, have breakfast and go into town to see the parade,” he said. “There are hundreds of people.”

Most parades consist of highly decorated floats, traditional Irish dancers and marching bands. Revelers are always ready to celebrate and come with their faces painted and wearing green from head to toe, ready to watch the show.

The Dublin parade is nationally televised, but nearly every town in Ireland holds a parade of some type, no matter how big or small.

Ian Henry, assistant men’s soccer coach and a native of Dublin, compared the parades to the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He said parade-goers dance, enjoy themselves and bring with them different types of libations.

“It’s kind of accepted as a drinking holiday,” he said. But sometimes revelers can get a bit too excited. People sometimes avoid the big parade in the heart of Dublin because of teensagers and their crazy antics. A report by WalletHub predicted that about 13 million pints of Guinness were consumed worldwide last year, which is no small feat.

It is clear that the Irish do not mess around when it comes to their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Stafford-Lacey said he and his friends call it “Paddy’s Weekend” and if the holiday falls on a weekday, it’s a “Paddy’s Week.”

“It’s basically just a big party,” he said. “It’s just a blast. It’s a day off school to relax and let loose and have fun.” But Stafford-Lacey thinks Americans are the ones that make a bigger deal out of the holiday. He spent several St. Patrick’s Days in Germany and the Netherlands and found that those countries celebrate the holiday in a similar fashion.

“I think everyone loves the idea of the stereotypical Irish man,” he said. “I think it’s the idea of drinking that people love so much.”Henry said St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated a lot better in America,

but does think that much of the holiday is now geared toward youngsters. Parades tend to attract families with younger children more than individuals.

America has its fair share of parades, too. There are more than 100 in the United States, with the largest and best known in Chicago, New York City and Boston.

The New York City parade sees upward of nearly 3 million attendants. Places like Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia usually see between 10,000 and 20,000 participants. But to Midwesterners, Chicago is most famous. Everyone knows about dyeing the Chicago River green. Today, 40 pounds of dye are used to turn the water green just for a few hours.

Junior Mardi Sramek lives near downtown Chicago and described the parade as a giant party. In high school, she remembers teens skipping out to attend and some partygoers begin drinking as early as 6 a.m. She said the city streets eventually become packed full of drunken revelers.

“The trains are so blocked because of everyone going into the city,” she said. “It makes it hard for people who actually work downtown.”

She said Michigan Avenue sees a wide range of people. There are families with children and intoxicated young adults and older people with their groups of friends. It is clear that no matter your age, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day never gets old.

In addition to attending parades and drinking, there are a number of other smaller traditions that the Irish take part in on St. Patrick’s Day.

Henry recalls eating traditional corned beef and cabbage as a child. His family also used to wrap coins in gold foil and put them in their potatoes for good luck. He said that traditions like that are similar to celebrating Easter in America by finding plastic eggs filled with candy and prizes.
“We would also bake a ring into a fruitcake and whoever got the slice with the ring was lucky,” Henry said.

Gahan remembers picking shamrocks for family members to wear on their lapels. He said people often mistake shamrocks for four-leaf clovers. St. Patrick used the shamrock, a three-leaved clover, to represent the Trinity, or the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while he spread Christianity throughout Ireland.
Some of the symbols we use to refer to St. Patrick’s Day have a fascinating history. The shamrock became the traditional symbol of Ireland, but one of the most popular and familiar figures of St. Patrick’s Day is the leprechaun.

Everyone is familiar with the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms cereal box, and some of us even buy a box just to pick out the colorful marshmallows. But the legend of leprechauns doesn’t have anything to do with magically delicious marshmellows. Leprechauns are actually fairies, since before St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, natives believed gods took the form of fairies. 

While the popular image of them comes with a rainbow and a pot of gold, they are also known to be con artists. Legend has it that if people can capture one, they can barter their freedom for treasure. Belief in leprechauns was once widespread throughout the country.

But behind all of the symbols, celebrations and history, one thing remains: the worldwide celebration of the Emerald Isle continues to fascinate and enchant us today.
“It’s nice to celebrate a day for your country,” Henry said.

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