St. Patrick’s Day: A Holiday That Knows No Borders


    Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and it is a day of celebration throughout the island of Ireland (both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland).  Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland – one of the four patron saints of the British – or Anglo-Celtic – Isles (with the other ones being St. Andrew for Scotland, St. David for Wales, and St. George for England).

     He was born somewhere in Roman Britain (likely Wales) to a wealthy Romano-British family, whose members were strong and faithful Christians. Patrick himself however, was not an active believer in his early years. At the age of sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates who took him into slavery in Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd for the next six years. It was during Patrick’s time in captivity that he experienced a spiritual awakening and developed a true relationship with God, which eventually led him to escape and return home to his family in Britain. There, he studied Christianity, became a priest, and returned to Ireland as a missionary.

     It was in Ireland that Saint Patrick become known for converting the Irish people from polytheistic paganism to monotheistic Christianity, and supposedly used the shamrock to teach the concept of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). It is said that St. Patrick spent several years evangelizing in what is now Northern Ireland and was reported to have succeeded in converting thousands of people. He is also considered the first Bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland.

     It is not known what year St. Patrick died, but he is generally considered have died on March 17, which resulted in the day being named in his honor. He may not have been responsible for converting all of Ireland to Christianity, but he is credited for starting the process, and has been Ireland’s patron-saint since around the 7th Century.

     St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated for centuries throughout Ireland and Great Britain. It is a celebration of Irish Christianity (in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions), as well as Irish culture and heritage in general. Public parades and festivals, the wearing of green attire and shamrocks, and church services are hallmarks of most St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. There is also céilithe (a traditional Gaelic social gathering, which usually involves playing Gaelic folk music and dancing) and the lifting of Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol for the day, which has resulted in the infamous tradition of consuming alcohol.

     However, it was not until the 1903 that St. Patrick’s Day became a public holiday in Ireland, thanks to the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act, which was passed by the UK Parliament when all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. It remains a holiday in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and large festivities are held in Dublin, Cork, and Galway in the ROI and in Belfast, Downpatrick, and Derry/Londonderry in NI. Outside of Dublin, the largest celebrations on the island of Ireland take place in Downpatrick, the city where the revered patron saint is supposedly buried at Down Cathedral.

     In mainland Britain, Birmingham is home to the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country, whilst London has held its own parade since 2002. Manchester hosts a two-week Irish festival leading up to the day itself, and the Irish tricolor flies opposite of the Union Jack above the town hall. Other celebrations take place in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Coatbridge – which have large populations of people with Irish backgrounds.

     The Royal family also does its bit to celebrate one of the patron-saints of the British Isles. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother used to present bowls of shamrock flown over from Ireland to members of the Irish Guards – a regiment of the British Army – whose members largely hail from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

     In recent years since their marriage, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Baron and Lady Carrickfergus) have attended the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade at Mons Barracks in Aldershot, Hampshire with the Irish Guards, whose Colonel is Prince William. The Duchess of Cambridge continues the royal tradition of having a senior female member of the Royal family present shamrocks to members of the Guards (including their Irish Wolfhound mascot), which was begun by Queen Alexandra – wife of Edward VII – in 1901.

     In the United States, St. Patrick’s Day is not a federal holiday, but there nevertheless is a strong tradition of celebrating it, especially in towns and cities with significant Irish or Irish-descent populations. The first public observance was organized by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston in 1737, and it involved a worship service and a special dinner.

     Since then, such observances have included large festive seasons with parades, feasts, and religious services. New York City is usually home to the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade, not only in America, but in the world, and typically features 150,000 marchers lead by the 69th Infantry Regiment of New York and including police and firefighting departments, bands, social and cultural societies, civic and government associations, and several other groups and individuals (including the Mayor of New York) marching up 5th Avenue for five hours along a mile-and-a-half route with around 2 million spectators.

     Elsewhere, there are large celebrations and observances in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Seattle, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In Suffolk County, Massachusetts (which includes Boston), the day is officially known by law as Evacuation Day because it commemorates the evacuation of British soldiers from Dorchester Heights following the Siege of Boston during the Revolutionary War, which just happened to fall on St. Patrick’s Day 1776, and the observance of the patron saint’s holiday played a role in the official establishment of the current public holiday.

     In fact, Suffolk County is only one of two places in the United States where St. Patrick’s Day is a legal holiday. The other place is my hometown of Savannah, Georgia.

     The first parade in Savannah is generally recognized as having been organized by the Hibernian Society in 1824. In recent times, the annual parade and celebrations are usually the second largest in the United States after New York and have become globally-recognized – attracting numerous visitors from throughout the country and around the world. In a city with a population of 145,000, anywhere from 500,000 to one million people may participate in the festivities in any given year.

     While the day still has a clear ethnic and religious significance, for most of us who live here (including yours truly), it is a cultural holiday for all to enjoy – white and black, Protestant and Catholic, religious and atheist, etc. – and I must say that as both a participant and spectator, I have yet to encounter hatred or disrespect for any group of people from whatever background. The best part is indeed, the parade, which includes various bands from the city and the surrounding region (especially from local schools), military regiments, social and cultural groups, government and civic organizations, the famous Budweiser Clydesdales, and many other units and individuals – some from other parts of the country and overseas.

     The crowds can get to be a bit much for our mid-sized city, but we generally welcome them as our neighbors and friends for the festivities which can spread out over several days, especially if the big day itself falls on or near a weekend. Our historic downtown area buzzes with streams of people getting around and enjoying themselves, particularly on the waterfront facing the Savannah River. Pubs of all kinds – Irish, Scottish, English, Welsh, and all-around British – boom with activity as people tend to gather around for a good time. It is – to say the least – a unique experience to remember.

     Understandably, St. Patrick’s Day is not for everyone for a variety of reasons – sometimes relating to the divide between Catholics and Protestants in the British Isles. However, on the BBC’s website, there is a page containing its archives from previous St. Patrick’s Day observances, with a video featuring a reporter asking people on the streets of Belfast in 1978 whether they should get the day off on March 17th.

     Opinions were divided, but at the end of the report, there is an elderly woman who did not explicitly state her view on having the day off. Instead, she acknowledged that St. Patrick was the patron saint, and when pressed on whether he was Protestant or Catholic, she said that, rather than designating him a place in either sectarian camp, she viewed him simply as a man sent by God who loved Ireland – all of it.

     If he were alive in this modern day and age, I’d like to believe that he would extend a hand of peace and friendship to the other patron saints of the British Isles, as well as all people living there – Catholic, Protestant, or whatever else they may be. 

     So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

By Earl Chatham

(Read more of the writings of Earl Chatham at Hands Across the Pond)