St. Patrick's Day: Fact vs. Fiction

A cloud of myth and fact surrounds St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the United States, rivaling the unclear history of the Irish patron saint for which the day is named.

Why Do We Celebrate St. Patrick's Day?

St. Patrick's Day: Fact vs. Fiction

A cloud of myth and fact surrounds St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the United States, rivaling the unclear history of the Irish patron saint for which the day is named.

Why Do We Celebrate St. Patrick's Day?

The celebration of St. Patrick's Day in the United States may bring to mind images of parades, beer, and partygoers decked out in green.

Bridget Haggerty, though, remembers marking St. Patrick's Day very differently. A 41-year U.S. resident who was born to Irish parents in England, Haggerty is the author of The Traditional Irish Wedding and the Web site Irish Culture and Customs.

As a child in England during the 1950s, Haggerty remembers that her expatriate Irish family would receive a package from her mother's relatives back in Dublin before each St. Patrick's Day. The package contained live shamrock and small cardboard badges emblazoned with a golden harp, a symbol of Ireland.

Family members would each pin a sprig of shamrock on their clothes, and Haggerty and her two brothers would wear the greenery along with their harp badges to school on St. Patrick's Day.

"If the budget allowed it, I'd have a green ribbon in my hair. But that was the only green we wore," said Haggerty, who now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

This seems a stark contrast to the fields of green decorations, hats, and clothes found in the United States. While no one can confirm with certainty why wearing so much green became popular, there is a very good reason, according to the Irish, not to do so, Haggerty said.

According to superstition, the color green was thought to bring bad luck because it was the favorite color of the fairy folk. "As a matter of fact," Haggerty said, "you should never say the fairies. They hate it! The Good People is the right term to use."

The Good People were unpredictable, according to Irish folklore, and were known to steal people away—especially children—who enticed fairy folk by wearing too much of their favorite color.

Irish Festival

Today Americans appear willing to take this risk. And it seems the Irish are beginning to follow suit. Dublin now holds a weeklong festival that culminates on St. Patrick's Day, said Haggerty.

Christina Mahony, acting director of Catholic University's Center for Irish Studies in Washington, D.C., has noticed the changes as well. About 15 years ago, Mahony said, marching bands, big parades, and other trappings of "American glitz" were "unheard of" in the Irish capital, Mahony said.

In Ireland, St. Patricks Day was traditionally a Catholic feast day and a holy day of obligation. People had the day off from work, went to Mass, and had a family meal together. "There was a religiousness about it, a sanctity about it," Mahony said.

Times indeed have changed. According to Mahony, Irish pubs used to be closed on two days of the year: Good Friday and St. Patrick's Day. "So ironically enough, in Ireland until recently, on St. Patrick's Day you couldn't get a drink!"

Mahony recalls one notable exception from her student days at University College in Dublin. The annual Irish dog show was held on March 17 and was given a license to sell alcohol. "It was amazing the number of people who developed a fondness for dogs on that particular day," Mahony said.

Another misconception is the association of St. Patrick with the color green, Mahony said. The confusion perhaps arises from the phrase "the wearing of the green," which meant to wear a shamrock. St. Patrick used the three-leaved plant to explain the Trinity of the Christian religion.

In contrast, the original color assigned to St. Patrick was blue, Mahony said. This color, St. Patrick's blue, can be seen on ancient Irish flags and on the uniforms the Irish special forces wear to this day.

As the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick is credited for bringing Christianity to the island. Yet St. Patrick himself remains in a mysterious fog of fact and legend.

No one can pinpoint the exact dates of St. Patrick's birth or death or where he originally was born, Mahony said. It is generally agreed that he was captured in his youth and sold into slavery, probably in the fifth century, in Ireland. "There is a combination of history and myth that is very difficult to sort out," Mahony said.

From Haggerty's perspective, it is clear from the stories, whether true or not, how St. Patrick won over the hearts of the Irish. "One of the things that endears him to the Irish … was the fact that, because he had been enslaved [in Ireland], he had learned the language and so he could preach to them in Irish."

The degree to which St. Patrick's Day is celebrated in the United States initially was a shock to Haggerty. Growing up an Irish Roman Catholic in the heart of Protestant England had been quite a challenge. "I didn't particularly care for being Irish when I was a kid," Haggerty said. "It took a long time to absorb the fact that [the U.S.] really, really loves its Irish heritage … That's something to be really admired."