Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day

 Part 1 — Section A

Across the world people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.  Whether quietly with their family, at a Church service, or boisterously in a pub, millions will join in marking the anniversary of Ireland’s patron saint.

St. Patrick’s Day is without question the biggest celebration of a national day across the globe.  In the big American cities, in Moscow’s Red Square, in Montserrat (the only place besides Ireland to declare the 17th of March a full public holiday) and even in Nigeria, people bedecked in green will be proclaiming themselves Irish for the day.  Because of its global nature, St. Patrick’s Day has traditionally been celebrated with more fanfare abroad than in Ireland.


St. Patrick’s Day began in Ireland as a Catholic holiday, but over the years–particularly in the last twenty–it has become a festival as much as a holy day.

Traditionally the day in Ireland was one for attending Church, and using the break in the lenten fast to feast on food and drink that was otherwise denied.  The first civic and public celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day took place in Boston in 1737, and were organized strangely enough by Irish Protestant immigrants.  The New York Irish began their parade in 1762 and has become largest in the world.  The Montreal parade began in the 1820s, and holds the record for being the longest running annual event in the world.

The first parades in the United States were begun by Irish immigrants to fight for equal rights.  These and other festivities on St. Patrick’s Day were vitally important to the Irish immigrants.  The day afforded them an opportunity to state their presence, reaffirm their Irishness and to promote causes important to them such as Catholicism, charity and Irish separatism.

In America, St. Patrick’s Day is also celebrated with feasts of corned beef and cabbage, and among many, with extensive drinking (drowning the shamrock).

In Ireland it wasn’t until the 1840s that the first large scale St. Patrick’s Day parades took to the streets. These were organized by members of Temperance organizations, and encouraged Irish men and women to forsake alcohol for the day — an aim that many would not find against the very spirit of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.  The only other major events in nineteenth century Ireland was a trooping of the color ceremony and a grand ball held at Dublin Castle for members of the city’s ascendancy elite: urban poor, Catholics and nationalists not welcome (although Countess Markevicz found time to attend the ball in 1911).


 Part 1 — Section B


With the founding of the Irish state in 1922, you would think that such an obvious marker of nationality such as St. Patrick’s Day would have been warmly embraced by the new government.  This was not the case.  The only events supported by the state until after the Second World War was a morning Church service and celebratory Mass, and a march past of the Irish Army.  In perhaps a move which was bound to provoke hostility, the government decided in 1923 to close all pubs and bars on St. Patrick’s Day — a ban that remained in place until the mid-1960s.  The only place in the country where alcohol could legally be served was at the Royal Dublin Society’s annual dog show — never have the pampered canines of Ireland been so popular!

From the 1940s, the day was reserved for an industrial pageant which passed its way slowly through the streets of Dublin.  The aim of the pageant was to showcase Irish industry and agriculture and to encourage people to”buy Irish.”  The photographs from the time, which show the pageant being headed by the winning king and queen of plowing, driving their tractors down O’Connell Street and supported by as many as 60 fellow plow people, look more like something from the 5 year plans of Stalin’s Soviet Union, than the cutting edge of Irish modernism.

The pageant was replaced in the 1970s by a Dublin Tourism parade.  This copied the American idea of a parade, and saw as its major goal the boosting of tourism revenue by attracting Irish-Americans and others back “home” so that they could step out on the streets of Dublin.  The parade quickly became conventional and unimpressive, the weather always seemed poor, and for most people over thirty, the grinning, and often underdressed American teenagers are their abiding memory of pre-Festival St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

In the mid-1990s the government established a committee to find a new focus for the 17th of March celebrations and were keen that any new event should reflect the growing cultural confidence and achievement of the Irish, while offering a positive and welcoming series of events for all.

With this new effort by the Government, the Festival has indeed achieved its aims.  In 2000 the four day event attracted well over a million spectators.  Many of these were tourists, but importantly many were from Dublin and its suburbs, thereby repositioning St. Patrick’s Day as an event that was there for the Irish themselves as well as the once a year Irish.  The Festival has been symbolic of the success of modern Ireland.  It has reflected the cultural vibrancy of U2, Riverdance and all those other recent successful cultural markers of Irishness.  It has embraced the wealth of that strange beast the “celtic tiger,” so that the events are all sponsored and the Festival as a whole is not dependent on government funding.  It is also true that events in the North, and the ongoing peace process have reflected favorably on the reinvention of the 17th March festivities.



Part 1 — Section C


Today, the Irish in Ireland see the day as a feast and holy day, celebrated with a week-long tradition of festivities.  Mass on St. Patrick’s Day is customary, and if one stops at a pub for a pint or two afterward, it’s not an uncommon occurrence.  But there’s no influence to drink more because of the holiday.  In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is treated like any other saint’s day.  St. Patrick’s Day parades one sees today in Ireland are as a result of American influence.

Family get-togethers are very important, and it’s not unusual for a family to gather for a special meal.  Corned beef and cabbage is an American tradition; in Ireland, you’d more likely find succulent, pink bacon or a savory roast chicken on the table.

For visitors to Ireland during the St. Patrick’s Day season, there are parades in most of the larger cities–certainly Dublin, Galway, and Cork plus other venues. The Dublin festivities run from the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day through the weekend after with a wonderful program of free entertainment for everyone to enjoy, such as street theater, fireworks, music, exhibitions, and even a treasure hunt.


Part 2 — Section A

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Old Ireland
by Bridget Haggerty


All over the world, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with elaborate parades; families tuck into the traditional dinner of corned beef and cabbage (traditional everywhere except Ireland, that is); and, in the pubs, the green beer flows swifter than the River Shannon. It’s odd to think that just a short time ago, none of the most popular customs we often take for granted even existed. In fact, today’s international festivities are very different from how St. Patrick’s Day was once celebrated in old Ireland

While St. Patrick’s Day is now a national holiday, as well as a religious feast day, a few hundred years ago, the emphasis was on spirituality and a much needed break from the austerities of Lent.

Families would attend Mass, and every youngster proudly wore a St. Patrick’s Cross. The week before the festival, children busied themselves in the making of the crosses, which differed, depending on whether you were a boy or a girl.

The boy’s cross consisted of a three-inch square of white paper on which was drawn a circle divided by elliptical lines. Each compartment was shaded in with a different color. For yellow, an egg yolk was often used; green could be had by chewing young grass; laundry blue provided another shade; and red, well, it was a cross for a little boy and one can only imagine how proud he must have been to sacrifice a few drops of blood in honor of St. Patrick! Come the big day, the finished cross was jauntily worn, military style, on his cap.

While the cross for a boy was quite simple, the one for his sister was a bit fancier. It was formed by placing two three-inch pieces of cardboard or stiff paper at right angles to each other. To hold them in position, they were wrapped with ribbons of different colors and then a green rosette was placed in the center. The proper way for a girl to wear her cross was either pinned at the right shoulder or on her chest. And, speaking of proper, it would have been considered a major faux pas for a girl to wear a boy’s cross or vice versa.

Besides the crosses for children, there was another type which was made only by the menfolk. This was formed out of twigs from wild sallow and, as with the St. Brigid’s Cross, it was pinned to the thatch on the inside of the house. Each year a new one would be added.

Pictures from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin City, Ireland

Dublin Parade 01

Dublin Parade 02

Dublin Parade 03

Dublin Parade 04

Image: Crowds watch as floats pass during a St

Dublin Parade 06

Dublin Parade 07

Dublin Parade 08

Dublin Parade 09

St. Patrick's day celebrations

Dublin Parade 11

Dublin Parade 12

Dublin Parade 13

St. Patricks Day Parade

Part 2 — Section B

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Old Ireland

Irish Shamrock

With all of their crosses prepared, children went to bed on the eve of March 17th happy and contented – as did the adults. Tomorrow, all Lenten restrictions would be set aside for a day of feasting and merriment!

Whatever the weather, St. Patrick’s Day was generally regarded as the middle day of spring. And, as the good saint had promised improved weather from March 17th onward, this was the time Ireland’s farmers planted the main potato crop. Delaying this work long after the feast day would have been regarded by the neighbors as slovenly or lazy. That said, no-one expected any work to be done on the big day itself!

While we don’t celebrate the way our ancestor’s did, one custom has come down to us – the wearing of the Shamrock. I can well remember my mother joyfully opening the little package from her family in Dublin. It came every year, right before the feast day. Inside, was a sprig of live shamrock which she quickly plunged into tepid water; within a few minutes, it looked nearly as fresh as when it had been picked. Before he went to work on March 17th, my father tucked the shamrock into his cap. Not to be left out, the little package also contained badges for the children. These usually featured a gold harp surrounded by tiny shamrocks on a white background. My mother pinned these to our outfits and she always managed to find a lovely green ribbon for my hair. We never wore any more green than that – to do so, according to my mother, would have been too great a temptation for the fairies! She was a firm believer in the old superstition that green was their favorite color and they’d spirit away any child fully-garbed in green.

Meanwhile, back in the Ireland of our ancestors, when Mass was over, the mother and children would hurry back to the house to begin preparing the feast. Just as quickly, the men headed for the pub to drink the ‘Pota Pádraig’ or St. Patrick’s Pot. This term is rarely heard today, but it continued in fairly general use until quite recently and was also applied to any treat given to friends, or gifts of money or sweets given to children.

After one (or more!) St. Patrick’s Pots, the menfolk hurried home to the feast. Usually, the good wife would have ear-marked a nice piece of cured pork. Corned beef and cabbage? Not back then, and not even now is this a traditional St. Patrick’ s Day dinner! It’s a custom that was begun by emigrants who, in longing for their native land, tried to create a meal that would remind them of home. And so, the dinner of long ago would most likely have been similar to the one I remember when I was growing up. Dad would have brought home a nice piece of boiled bacon which was more like ham. This would be served with floury potatoes cooked in their jackets. Often, we did have cabbage and I well remember that we might go through nearly a pound of butter at one sitting. Who could resist when there was also warm soda bread on the side!


Part 2 — Section C

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Old Ireland


When dinner was over, many families either went to a caeli or held one in their homes. The musical instruments stored away on Shrove Tuesday were brought out and the evening was spent in singing, dancing, telling stories – and yes, the drinking continued! After all, there were still several weeks of fasting and abstinence ahead, so it was the order of the day to over-indulge. No doubt, the children were ill from eating too many sweets, and their parents probably suffered from sore heads the next day. In the eyes of the church, this would have been a most appropriate penance!

At the end of the evening, there was one last custom to observe: ‘drowning the Shamrock.’ A leaf that had been worn in the cap or coat was placed into the bottom of the final glass. When everyone’s health had been drunk or a toast honored, the shamrock was taken from the bottom of the glass and thrown over the left shoulder. Also, in some parts of Southern Ireland, a cross was marked with the end of a burnt stick on the sleeve of each person at the gathering. This was done with a prayer that the individual so marked might be constant in their faith and in their love of Ireland’s patron saint.

So there you have it – A typical St. Patrick’s Day Celebration as it might have taken place in Ireland two or three hundred years ago. Did they have more fun than we do now? It’s a matter of opinion. I know that I miss going to the Morris Hall with my folks on the evening of March 17th. I was enthralled by the music and the dancing. With mixed emotions, I do recall one very special evening when my father asked me to dance. I was about 14 at the time and he’d never invited me to take the floor with him. He’d won medals for ballroom dancing and his specialty was the Viennese Waltz. On that St. Patrick’s Day, I received my first ballroom dancing lesson and, unfortunately, I did very poorly. “Daughter, yer too stiff,” he said. You bet I was – stiff with fear that I’d make a fool of myself. As hard as I tried to relax, it was impossible. But, he twirled me around until the dance was over and then gave me a hug. It was the first and last time we danced together. To this day, I can’t hear a waltz without being reminded of what a beautiful dancer he was.

St. Pat's Day