It’s the most celebrated national holiday in the world, and on Friday Leipzig, too, joins the party – in the Irish pubs, of course! Before looking into the boozier traditions of the day, let’s take a look at the man behind it all: the one who’d one day become Saint Patrick.
Saint Patrick’s journey
Saint Patrick was born in Britain, and at the tender age of 16 was taken to Ireland as a slave by Irish raiders. At this time, Ireland was very much a pagan country. It was under these conditions, working as a shepherd, that he turned his attention to the Christian faith.
He stayed in Ireland until he was 20, before escaping to return to Britain and to his family.
In Confessio, the memoir by the future Saint Patrick, he wrote of a vision: It called him to return to be among the Irish. He took this as a call to priesthood and was later ordained as a bishop, returning to bring Christianity to Ireland.
Saint Patrick converted thousands of Irish to Christianity, and built churches, schools and monasteries across the country.
Although sceptics could argue that this was the beginning of Ireland’s problems – as a country marred by conflict between nationalists and unionists, often divided along religious lines – all sorts of communities across Ireland and the world celebrate the saint’s feast day with enthusiasm.
Legend has it that Saint Patrick used the shamrock, now a national symbol of Ireland, to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity. The other, more questionable legend, is that he chased the snakes from Ireland.
Traditionally, Saint Patrick was honoured on 17 March with feasts and religious services. Yet, like many religious and spiritual celebrations and rituals, such as Halloween, the United States soon transformed the day into a much more secular day – a celebration of “Irishness,” whatever that may be.
Wearing green, wearing the shamrock on the lapel of one’s suit and even green beer, have come to be “traditional” elements of the festivities.
America, of course, has a huge number of Irish emigrants and descendants, who have often gained impressive degrees of power in the country, such as John F. Kennedy and Woodrow Wilson (who was of Ulster-Scotch descent). In 1737, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland was actually held much later – in Waterford in 1903. It had a cultural focus on the Irish language. By 1916, there were nearly 40 parades throughout Ireland, led by the Irish Volunteers.
They would then go on to stage the Easter Rising, a pivotal event in Ireland’s bloody struggle for independence.
How the Irish do it
When I think about it, I really don’t know what St. Patrick’s Day means to the Irish – or rather, if today they attach any overarching cultural significance to the festival. Few people I know attach any religious significance to the day. Rather the festival, as in the US, seems to be a more secular celebration of Irishness.
Green, leprechauns, Irish dancing and music will all feature in the parades and concerts in Irish cities. Important sporting matches will be held over the weekend, such as the final of the 6 Nations rugby tournament between Ireland and England, and the Dublin University Boat Race.
And alcohol will be involved. I checked with a few friends to make sure my impression was correct: what do the Irish do? They go drinking.
Of course, given that St. Patrick’s Day is a feast day, i.e. a break from Lent, when those partaking can break away from the strenuous fasting and indulge in some forbidden substances, the Irish have every right to do so.
The modern festivities have taken this to another level, though. The stereotype is true: the Irish do like drinking, and St. Patrick’s Day is regarded as many as an excuse to go to excesses.
John Nagle, of the University of Aberdeen, has written extensively on the question of “Irishness” and its context in a multicultural world. On the question of St. Patrick’s Day and alcohol, he writes, “while ritualised alcohol consumption practices can act as a social lubricant, helping to dissolve barriers between people, they can also have dire consequences in terms of the destructive capacity of alcohol addiction and its role in perpetuating negative stereotypes of Irishness.”
If St. Patrick’s Day is about celebrating Irish culture, and Irish culture is drinking, then we are doing a pretty good job. Saint Patrick, however, may be turning in his grave.
Recently, St. Patrick’s day has been criticised for its drunken and disorderly nature. For others, the festival has become too commercialised, with many major alcohol brands using the event as advertising opportunity. Others lament the way in which the US-influenced celebrations reinforce negative Irish stereotypes of being drunken, green leprechauns.
In an interview in 2007, Father Vincent Twomey, a Catholic priest, questioned the need for “mindless, alcohol-fuelled revelry” and said it was “time to bring the piety and the fun together.”
I’ve been asked, and have asked myself, why the Irish feel the need to drink so much – in general and also in order to celebrate this national holiday. I’m still thinking about it; and of course, it will depend who you ask.
I recently had a conversation on a journey with an Irish stranger, who concluded that the Irish drink to get away from their worries. Others will tell you it’s because it’s fun. Or it’s cultural. Or simply the norm with which many Irish people have grown up.
The Taoisigh (Irish Prime Minister) has visited the President of the United States on St. Patrick’s Day since 1956, with an offering of a bowl of shamrock. As the years went on and the US began to show more interest in Irish affairs, particularly Bill Clinton during the Troubles, this visit became more important.
There was feigned outrage when it appeared that the visit by the somewhat insignificant Irish Head of State, Enda Kenny, would be immediately preceded and trumped by Angela Merkel’s first face to face encounter with Donald Trump. As “fate” would have it, Trump posponed Merkel’s visit to the US at the last minute due to a snow storm.
Merkel will now fly out on Friday, St. Patrick’s Day itself.
Of course, with Trump in the White House, his international relations with almost every country have changed, or at least heated up. On Ireland’s agenda will be the question of the thousands of “undocumented” (to be politically correct), or rather illegal, Irish immigrants in the US.
Enda Kenny will also use the meeting to defend the European Union to Trump, who openly advocated for Brexit. Attention will also be given to the US tax policy: Trump has pledged to cut corporate tax rates to 15%, and punish American firms that move abroad to tax havens such as Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Day remains an important religious festival for many Protestants and Catholics; for the populace in general, it might be a good idea to celebrate less and reflect more.
Whether you’re spending your St. Patrick’s Day in an Irish pub, or parading in a leprechaun outfit, don’t forget to raise a glass to the Saint behind the day.