More than a millennium ago, a Catholic priest named Patrick died on March 17—or so the story goes. By the seventh century he was already recognized as the patron saint of Ireland, and with his death was born a religious holiday that has since turned into a worldwide festival. But St. Patrick’s Day hasn’t always been about beer, shamrocks and wearing green. Learn more about the surprising history of the Irish holiday, and how it’s changed over the years.
St. Patrick Wasn’t Irish
Despite his association with the Emerald Isle, Patrick wasn’t originally Irish—his family were Romans living in Britain in the fifth century. As a teenager, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold into slavery on Ireland. After working for years as a shepherd, he turned to Christianity and trained for the priesthood. He used his faith to convert the pagans of Ireland, likely finding some resistance from Druids, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia. His role in bringing Catholicism to Ireland is what makes him the island’s patron saint.
St. Patrick’s Day Was a Dry Holiday in Ireland
Although St. Patrick’s Day was recognized on the religious calendar as a feast day for centuries, it wasn’t recognized by the British government as a national bank holiday in Ireland until 1903—and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the holiday was an occasion for drinking, at least in Ireland; bars were closed for the holiday. Drinking was much more of a fixture in American celebrations of the holiday, starting as early as the 18th century. In the early 1900s, drinking green beer instead of the normal amber stuff started becoming a part of the festivities in the United States–but the term might’ve caused some confusion at first. In the late 1800s, “green beer” was a term for a beverage that hadn’t fully finished the fermentation process, which gave it a bad taste and caused stomach upset.
Celebrating With Dogs
Luckily the Irish had another way to celebrate in Ireland even if the bars were closed for St. Paddy’s: the Irish Kennel Club annual show, which began in 1922. The Irish Kennel Club was founded by a group of dog-owners who separated from the English Kennel Club system over which breeds should be included in shows—their version of an independence movement. The 2015 show—which is still held on St. Patrick’s Day—featured 1,700 dogs and 186 different breeds, all collected at a show hall in Dublin.
The First Toasters and Boasters
Early St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in America were quite different than the ones we see today, but one of the features of even those parties were toasts. Toasts were used to situate themselves in the politics of the day, to prove they were Americans as well as Irishmen. The very first celebration was the founding of Boston’s Charitable Irish Society in 1737. As historian E. Moore Quinn writes, “The pre-famine Irish honed toasts for publication in town newspapers, a strategy that succeeded in making their voices ‘seen’ to a reading class of educated merchants interested in art, science, literature, and politics.” In a 1766 New York gathering, one of the toasts was, “Success to the sons of liberty in America; may they never want money, interest, nor courage to maintain their just rights.”
The New York City Parade
In Ireland throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, wearing green as a sign of Irish pride was a political act. The color was used during the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641, and at one point Queen Victoria banned the green shamrock as an emblem for Irish troops in the British Army. But during the American Revolution, Irish soldiers serving with the British army had more freedom to wear green, sing Irish songs and embrace their cultural heritage. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1762, they led a parade through New York City past the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The tradition continued annually, led by the military until after the War of 1812, then organized by Irish fraternal societies. Today, hundreds of thousands or revelers march along the route.
The Irish Were Some of America’s Earliest Patriots
Irish Presbyterians were the largest immigrant group to arrive in the American colonies in the 1700s, and it’s estimated that at least one-quarter of Continental Army soldiers were Irish by birth or ancestry. During the brutal winter of 1779-1780, General George Washington organized St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Morristown, New Jersey, for his weather-beaten troops. And it wasn’t the only time the holiday played a role in the Revolutionary War. Earlier in the way in 1776, when British troops and loyalists withdrew from Boston harbor after an 11-month siege, Washington set the password and countersignal for re-entry into the city as “Boston” and “St. Patrick.”
The Green Chicago River
As St. Patrick’s Day grew in popularity around America, each city came up with its own way of celebrating. Starting in 1962, the city of Chicago dyed its eponymous river green. The inspiration for the stunt came from pollution-control workers, who used various chemical dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges. The first year, the city dumped 100 pounds of dye into the river, which left it green for an entire week. Since then, the dye has changed from an oil-based product to more environmentally friendly powdered, vegetable-based dye. The amount of dye in the river has changed as well, so that the color only lasts for a few hours rather than multiple days.
A Celebratory Milkshake
As with many other aspects of the holiday, celebrating by slurping down a minty-green milkshake from McDonald’s is an all-American tradition. The Shamrock Shake was invented either in 1966 by Harold Rosen, a franchise owner in Connecticut, or in 1970 by the larger corporation itself, depending on which source you ask. The limited-time milkshakes are enormously popular, and have a connection to a high-profile charity: the Ronald McDonald House. In 1974, McDonald’s held a week-long promotion during which all proceeds from the milkshake sales would go towards a fundraiser for Philadelphia Eagles football player Fred Hill, who was undergoing treatment for leukemia. The result of the fundraiser was a house near the hospital, which became the first in the network of Ronald McDonald houses. To commemorate the shake’s affiliation with the non-profit, a ceremonial “World’s Largest Shake” was dumped in the Chicago River in 2010 and 2011.
Despite the holiday’s Irish origins, the saint has also been used by British powers when Ireland was a kingdom belonging to Britain. In 1783, George III of England created the “Most Illustrious Order of the Knights of Saint Patrick.” It was an order of chivalry, with Irish nobles swearing loyalty to the king to be granted the knighthood, and its featured color was blue rather than green. One particularly famous recipient was Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg-Gotha—the husband of Queen Victoria. After Ireland gained independence from Great Britain in 1921 the creation of Knights essentially ended. The Order still exists today and is headed by Queen Elizabeth, but the last surviving Knight died in 1974.
Patrick, Patron Saint of … Nigeria?
In 1961, less than a year after their country gained independence, Nigerian bishops named St. Patrick the country’s patron. Coincidently, that was the same year Ireland opened an embassy in Lagos. The country is home to over 20 million Catholics, some of whom are descendants of those converted by Irish priests and missionaries who first arrived in the 19th century. Although St. Patrick’s Day isn’t an official holiday, there are still plenty who might reach for a pint of Guinness—the country accounts for about a fifth of Guinness’ world sales and is the largest stout market in the world by net sales value.