St. Patrick is the venerated patron saint of Ireland. He was attributed miracles, including but not limited to, turning walking sticks into living trees and banishing all the snakes from Ireland—all of which begs the question as to why an old clergyman scaring off snakes inspired such a widespread and timeless display of green beer, shamrocks, and drunken revelry.
Mike Cronin of Time Magazine muses about his quiet days in Ireland and the beginnings of the beloved paddy holiday, noting that:
“The modest observance of St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland dates back to the 17th century, as a religious feast day that commemorates the death of St. Patrick … for the public at large, it was a quiet day with no parades or public events.”
In the 20th century, Ireland started a military parade to commemorate the holiday, but in fact closed down bars on St. Patrick’s Day. It wasn’t until the men and women of Éire set foot on American shores that the holiday became a spectacle of celebration.
Other side of the pond
“The first recorded celebrations of March 17 took place in Boston in 1737 when a group of elite Irish men came together to celebrate over dinner what they referred to as ‘the Irish saint.’”
These elite men were members of the Charitable Irish Society of Boston, one of the hotbeds of Irish ancestry next to nearby New York, and it was these early observances that started off the tradition of lively celebration.
In the 19th century, towards the end of the civil war, the Irish were flocking to the United States by the shipload, and many were faced with the hardships of immigration at the hands of none-too-friendly natives. In difficult circumstances, Irish immigrants saw the holiday as a chance to celebrate their identity and heritage. When faced with the challenges of finding a new home, the Irish had one another. By the end of the century, celebrations of a hybrid identity and a future of free Ireland had spread across the East Coast from Chicago to Boston and New York.
Of course, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t the only American holiday that seems oddly off sync with its somber religious origins. Much like Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter, American marketing firms saw business opportunities. In true American fashion, companies across the continent capitalized, and over the years St. Patrick’s Day grew to become a staple of American heritage. Such was the transition from quiet observations with corned beef and cabbage to emerald beads and shamrock shakes.
Only in America
Part of the reason St. Patrick’s Day became such a staple of American holidays is our history as a nation of immigrants and our capacity to accept hyphenated identities. Whereas a Frenchman is a Frenchman foremost, and the same could be said of an Englishman, revelry around one’s heritage was embraced as a part of being American, rather than setting oneself apart from it. It was in this sense that Irish Americans found an assertion of their identity that celebrated all aspects of who they came to be.
Today, the largest celebration of Irish heritage occurs in New York City where more than 2 million people regularly gather for the march of bands, bagpipes and dancers up Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, lasting for six hours. Like many precedents set by the United States, the annual celebration caught on around the world, from Sydney to Montreal, and, of course, back to Dublin. Starting in its modern glory from the shores of America, St. Patrick’s Day grew to become an international holiday of jolly green proportions.