St. Patrick’s Day: An Irishman’s Guide To History, Tradition + (Random) Facts

A big aul guide

st. patricks day in Ireland
Photo by Niall Cosgrove via Tourism Ireland

I‘ve been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day for 30 years now. 30 years… Good God, I’m feeling old!

Over the years, I’ve donned green facepaint and watched the parade (as a kid), drank cans of Irish beer in a field with friends (as a teenager), and acknowledged it in no way at all (as an adult).

In the guide below, you’ll learn the history of St. Patricks Day, discover all there is to know about the man himself and find heaps of facts and (hopefully) interesting info.

10 interesting St. Patrick’s Day Facts to kick us off

st patricks day facts
Photo by Niall Cosgrove via Tourism Ireland

In this first section, you’ll find a heap of St. Patrick’s Day facts and trivia that should give you a solid overview of all things St. Patrick.

I’ll be completely honest – I hadn’t heard half of the facts below up until half an hour ago, which I’m ever-so-slightly ashamed about!

  1. Why March 17th? St. Patricks Day is on March 17th as this is the day that the Saint passed away.
  2. It’s believed that the remains of St. Patrick are buried at Down Cathedral in County Down.
  3. St. Patrick died in 461 in Saul, County Down.
  4. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in the US in 1737.
  5. The first St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was held in County Waterford in 1903.
  6. Why do we wear green on St. Patricks Day? The wearing of green actually only became a tradition in the 19th century.
  7. Before the 19th century, the colour commonly associated with Ireland’s Patron Saint was blue.
  8. St. Patrick didn’t really banish snakes. Most scientists believe that snakes never existed in Ireland.
  9. St. Patrick wasn’t Irish – he’s either Welsh or Scottish
  10. He was abducted at the age of 16 and brought to Northern Ireland to be a slave.

Interested in more facts? Hop into our guide to 17 surprising St. Patrick’s Day facts (I hadn’t heard about 60% of them up until now…)

St. Patrick’s Day history

exterior shot of The Saint Patrick Centre
The Saint Patrick Centre, Downpatrick: Photo via Discover NI

Before we dive into the history of St. Patrick’s Day, we need to take a look at the story of the man with which it all began – St. Patrick himself.

Who is St. Patrick?

St. Patrick is Ireland’s Patron Saint. He was a 5th-century Romano-British (more on this in a minute) missionary who came to Ireland to bring the word of God to the Irish people.

His early days

It is believed that St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain (Britain was ruled by the Roman Empire for 350+ years) in the fourth century. 

A number of online sources state that St. Patrick’s original name was Maewyn Succat, but I can find no real credible source that confirms whether this is absolutely true.

He was born into a wealthy family – Patrick’s father was a deacon (an ordained minister) and his grandfather was a priest in the local Christian church.

When Patrick was just 16 years of age, he was kidnapped and taken to Northern Ireland. It’s said that he spent six years there tending to sheep as a Shepard and it was during this time that he found God.

Patrick saw his kidnapping as a punishment for his lack of faith. It’s said that he spent much of his time in captivity in prayer.

A man on a mission 

Much of the following story contains references from ‘St. Patrick’s Confession’, which is a book that St. Patrick is believed to have written.

According to St. Patrick’s Confession, God told Patrick to flee his captures and make his way to the Irish coast where a ship would be waiting to take him back home to Britain.

Patrick fled and managed to make it back home. Once there, he began his studies to become a priest. 

His return to Ireland

It’s said that St. Patrick had a dream one night when he was back home that the people of Ireland were calling him back to Ireland to tell them about God. This dream inspired him to return, however, he didn’t do so immediately.

When he had the dream he felt like he was underprepared for a life as a missionary, so he followed his studies to better equip himself for the task ahead.

He travelled to France for a while where he trained in a monastery. It wasn’t until 12 years later, now a Bishop, that he returned to Ireland to spread the word of God.

The snake myth

You’ll often hear it said that St. Patrick banished the snakes out of Ireland. This, in fact, is not true. There were never any snakes in Ireland to banish.

It’s believed that the St. Patrick snakes link is all about symbolism. In Judeo-Christian tradition, snakes are the symbol of evil.

It’s said that St. Patrick banishing the snakes from Ireland represents his fight to bring the word of God to Ireland.

The history of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day

st patrick's cathedral armagh
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, County Armagh: Photo by Brian Morrison

So, now that you know a bit about the man himself, we’re now going to jump into St. Patrick’s Day and look at the history of the celebration.

I’ll be honest, before writing this article, I thought that I knew the history of St. Patrick’s Day, but everything that I believed came from stories from friends and teachers and via movies.

Below, you’ll find the real history of St. Patricks Day. Dive on in!

What is the origin of St Patrick’s Day and why do we celebrate it?

The first St. Patrick’s Day can be credited to a chap named Luke Wadding. Wadding was an Irish Franciscan friar (a religious order within the Catholic Church) from Waterford.

It was Wadding who helped turn March 17th into St. Patrick’s Day, after he succeeded in getting the power of the Church behind the idea. 

As far as a date goes, I can’t find anything concrete. Wadding lived during the 16th century, so it’s reasonable to believe that this is when the first St. Patrick’s day was celebrated.

Why do we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

At its foundations, March 17th is a celebration of the life of Ireland’s Patron Saint. However, over the years the day has become more of a celebration of Irish culture.

For many people, St. Patrick’s Day involves meeting with friends and family, going to parades, and, for some, celebrating with a drink.

St. Patrick’s Day Traditions in Ireland

St patrick's day traditions
Photo by Bernie Brown via Tourism Ireland

I want to start this section off by saying that not everything below will apply to every person in Ireland.

Some people, like myself, avoid going out to pubs or parades on St. Patrick’s Day and opt to go for a walk or a hike.

Many more embrace the St. Patrick’s Day festivities, cook up green foods, make Irish drinks and spend two days washing out green hair dye.

Below, you’ll find a tonne of different St. Patrick’s Day traditions in Ireland. If you know of any more, let me know in the comments section at the end of this guide.

Tradition 1: Wearing green

From hats and gloves to facepaint, hair dye and more, the most notable St. Patrick’s Day tradition involves digging out every bit of green clothing that you have in the house and throwing it on.

Tradition 2: Mass with a shamrock

I have a lovely memory (which I must chat to my Nan about tonight) of my Grandad coming home from mass on St. Patrick’s Day with a big clump of shamrocks hanging from his breast pocket.

For practising Christians, mass is a tradition on St. Patrick’s Day. Mass will often be followed by a family dinner and then the watching of the parade in Dublin on the television.

Tradition 3: Parades and festivals

Attending parades is another well-known St. Patrick’s Day tradition. Many cities and towns across the world hold parades and festivals either on the day or during the week of March 17th.

Tradition 4: The ‘Greening’ of buildings

Another tradition that has gone global over the past decade is the ‘greening’ of buildings. In Ireland, you’ll find that many iconic buildings across the country are lit up in green on March 17th.

Globally, everywhere from the Sydney Opera House to the fountain in the White House go green to celebrate the day.

St Patrick’s Day Parades

croagh patrick
The view from Croagh Patrick: Photo by Gareth McCormack

The chances are that if you’ve ever visited Ireland in March, you’ll have been to a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

BUT did you know that the very first St. Patrick’s Day parade didn’t take place in Ireland?! I definitely didn’t, anyway!

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade (it wasn’t in Ireland)

Interestingly enough, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade didn’t take place in Ireland, it took place in the United States. It was held in Boston in 1737.

Many years later, in 1766, New York’s first parade took place, and it has been gaining in size and lavishness ever since.

The first parade in Ireland

Ireland’s first parade took place many, many years later in 1931. The parade was held in County Waterford. Over the years, many towns and cities in Ireland followed suit.

The largest parade takes place each year in Dublin. It’s attended by thousands of people and it’s also broadcast live on National Television.

St. Paddy’s Day vs St. Patty’s Day

st. patricks day in Ireland
Photo by Niall Cosgrove via Tourism Ireland

In Ireland, you’ll hear St. Patrick’s Day frequently referred to as ‘St. Paddy’s Day’. Somewhere along the line, Americans started to call it ‘St. Patty’s Day’.

This could have been due to the names sounding so similar, but who knows. Now, many people in Ireland get fairly (and often unreasonably) irked when ‘St. Patty’s Day’ is mentioned.

Mainly because it’s a ridiculous name to call the day and one that has been corrected a million times over. If you call it ‘St. Patty’s Day’, feel free to keep doing so. Just try not to refer to it as that if you visit Ireland.

FAQs

titanic st. paddy's day
Photo by Gerry Sweeney via Tourism Ireland (Copyright Titanic Belfast)

My inbox gets lamped out of it every March with questions about St. Patrick and March 17th.

I’ve done my best to answer as many of these questions as possible below. If you have a question that hasn’t been answered, ask in the comments section below.

How did St Patrick’s Day become a drinking holiday?

This is arguably the question that we get asked the most. It needs to be noted first that St. Patrick’s Day is only a day of drinking for some. Many attend parades and celebrations without having any form of drink.

There’s no real answer behind how it became a drinking holiday for some, but it’s not overly hard to guess. March 17th is a public holiday in Ireland. This means many are off work and meeting friends. Enter alcohol.

How to say Happy St. Patrick’s Day in Irish?

If you’re looking to wish someone a happy St. Patrick’s Day as Gaeilge, it’s ‘Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit!’

Why do we wear green on St Patrick’s Day?

Randomly enough, the wearing of green on St. Patrick’s Day only became a tradition in the 19th century. Before the 19th century, the colour commonly associated with Ireland’s Patron Saint was blue

When was St. Patrick born?

Saint Patrick was born in Roman-Britain circa 386 A.D. He didn’t arrive in Ireland until 433. 

Howaya! Thanks for visiting the Irish road trip! This site exists to inspire and guide you on an Irish adventure that’ll give birth to a lifetime of memories (sounds very arsey altogether, I know!) You'll find everything from things to do in Ireland to where to stay in Ireland (unique and unusual places) if you have a nosey around!

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi Keith, So happy I stumbled on your website. Just on a lunch break at work and need waaaaaaaaaaay more time to go through it, but I am planning a trip to Ireland March 2020. I’m thinking 10-14 days but have not landed on a solid plan. I will be there for my 50th birthday and by chance my birthday happens to fall on St. Patrick’s Day. Even though I was born in Chile, now living in Canada the majority of my life, we do have Irish descendants on my dad’s side. I have never been to Europe and I thought what better way to celebrate a “milestone”. In any case, there will be some friends and family joining us, so far 9 people, not including myself and my husband. Pretty sure some will initially be with us just for the birthday celebration piece and then go and do their own thing (which is fine by me). In the end, I want to do what I want to do and don’t want to worry if other people are in agreement or not. I love being outdoors, exploring, hiking etc, and can’t wait to explore but just have no idea where to start, and if we should drive, etc…especially with the number of people who will initially start the trip with us. I will check out your site more when I get the chance but in the mean time, just saying ‘hi’, and can’t wait to read and learn more!! Cheers!!

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