Who Was St. Patrick and Why Do the Irish Celebrate St. Patrick's Day?


There are few cities around the world where the name of Saint Patrick is not known. And in those cities, there are fewer who do not make the connection between festivities in his honor and the presence of Irish men and Irish women and their descendents in their midst. 

Down through the ages, the leaders of many countries have sought to extend their influence well beyond the borders of their native state. Generally this was done through conquest and occupation at considerable cost in treasure and blood to both conqueror and conquered. At the high points of each of these empires, the peoples and leaders who created them felt great pride in their achievements. That this pride was not necessarily reciprocated by the inhabitants of the regions they conquered and ruled is also a matter of record and helped sow the seeds of each empire's decline and the eventual extinction. After the empires receded, there are few, if any, annual festivals honoring the former conquerors in the countries they once controlled. 

The Irish, on the other hand, have spread their nation's influence to almost every country in the globe where they are welcomed by most and tolerated by the rest. By "nation" I mean in the biblical sense or the sense of the Islamic term "Ummah"; not a nation state, but a people or tribe. Saint Patrick, one of the patron saints of Ireland, serves as the focus for the Irish Diaspora’s desire to parade their pride in this achievement before the world. 

That a parade is the vehicle chosen to make their point may have its roots in the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century. After the conquest of Ireland and the Reformation, the Catholic religion, which Saint Patrick is credited with bringing to Ireland, was virtually outlawed in that country. The settlers, mainly Protestants, feeling uneasy at being surrounded by a hostile native population resorted to numerous triumphal marches and festivals celebrating their victories to boost their confidence. The famine in the mid-1800s sent millions of Irish overseas, most of them to the United States. With their newfound freedom and growing political power it must have seemed natural to hold parades in celebration. And what better day to hold the parade on than the feast day of St. Patrick, champion of a religion they could now practice freely. It is no accident that some of the most lavish Saint Patrick's Day parades take place in the United States.

That so many people with no Irish connection join in the celebrations is a matter of even greater pride and engenders a feeling of acceptance and assimilation amongst the Irish communities in each city.

Down through the years St. Patrick's Day events have thrown the spotlight on the Irish love of singing, dancing and "hard drinking". That this is not confined to one day per year may be lost on – or news to- some of the non-Irish celebrants! With the publicity they receive, the parades have also been a magnet for those supporting causes related to both the "troubles" in Ireland and local issues in the cities where the parades are held.

Saint Patrick is a shadowy historical figure. In fact, some historians believe there were two "St. Patrick's." What seems certain is that he was not Irish but probably a Briton and Roman citizen. However, the seeds he (or they) planted in Ireland yielded a harvest of learning and missionary zeal that sent Irish monks and clerics into Europe - and some maintain even across the Atlantic - after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Their exploits are set out in Thomas Cahill's book "How the Irish Saved Civilization."

It would seem that an empire built on a foundation of cooperation and a willingness to fit in and work with neighbors for the good of the overall community has superior staying power.

Photo Credit: Sebastian Dooris