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St. Patrick's Day: History, Folklore and More

History and Lore

What are Leprechauns?

Leprechauns are a type of fairy, though it's important to note that the fairies of Irish folklore were not cute Disneyfied pixies; they could be lustful, nasty, capricious creatures whose magic might delight you one day and kill you the next if you displeased them. Leprechauns are often described as wizened, bearded old men dressed in green (early versions were clad in red) and wearing buckled shoes, often with a leather apron. Sometimes they wear a pointed cap or hat and may be smoking a pipe. Other researchers say that the word leprechaun may be derived from the Irish leath bhrogan, meaning shoemaker. Indeed, though leprechauns are often associated with riches and gold, in folklore their main vocation is anything but glamorous: they are humble cobblers, or shoemakers. According to Irish legends, people lucky enough to find a leprechaun and capture him (or, in some stories, steal his magical ring, coin or amulet) can barter his freedom for his treasure. Leprechauns are usually said to be able to grant the person three wishes. But dealing with leprechauns can be a tricky proposition.

Why are the Irish thought of as Lucky?

The phrase luck of the Irish is commonly thought to mean “extreme good fortune.” However, according to Edward T. O’Donnell, an Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College and author of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History, the term has not an Irish origin but “a happier, if not altogether positive,” American one.

"During the gold and silver rush years in the second half of the 19th century, a number of the most famous and successful miners were of Irish and Irish American birth. . . .Over time this association of the Irish with mining fortunes led to the expression 'luck of the Irish.' Of course, it carried with it a certain tone of derision, as if to say, only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains, could these fools succeed."

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Are Shamrocks the Same as Four-Leaf Clover?

Legend has it that St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, used the shamrock (or three-leaf clover) to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) in the fourth century A.D. while converting the Irish to Christianity. But the story of St. Patrick and the shamrock, as we know it, is just that: There’s no mention of the shamrock in the saint’s writings, and the first written reference to the idea of St. Patrick using the plant to explain the Trinity is in the early 18th century, more than a thousand years after his supposed lessons. 

One of the first symbols of luck that comes to mind is the shamrock — no, the four-leaf clover — wait, what's the difference? Unlike other good luck charms, the four-leaf clover got its rep for a pretty straightforward reason. Four-leaf clovers are really hard to find, and that rarity is why we consider them lucky. They're actually the product of a genetic mutation in the regular white clover plant, but that hasn't stopped humankind from assigning meaning to their unique shape.

Should we be Wearing Blue?

St. Patrick's Day is the holiday when even the most recalcitrant American feels tempted to don green clothing or sip on some green beer. But what if everyone wore blue on March 17 each year instead? After all, the earliest depictions of St. Patrick show him clothed in blue garments, not green, and that when George III created a new order of chivalry for the Kingdom of Ireland, the Order of St. Patrick, its official color was a sky blue, known as "St. Patrick's Blue." The color blue was long associated with Ireland in myth, but it started to sour due to mounting tension with British Rule. From the late 18th to the 20th century, as the divide between the Irish population and the British crown deepened, the color green and St. Patrick's shamrock became a symbol of identity and rebellion for the Irish. 

Patron Saint of What?

Many are familiar with the tale of St Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland, but it is also claimed that he was instrumental in the initial construction of Irish clay churches in the 5th century A.D. St Patrick has been credited with teaching the Irish to build arches of lime mortar instead of dry masonry. It was these achievements that led to him becoming the patron saint of engineers.

Were There Really Snakes in Ireland?

Despite his legendary status as the man who drove the snakes out of Ireland, Patrick, or Patricius as he called himself in the fifth century, was recognized for helping to convert the island of Ireland to Christianity. According to fossil recordsthere never were any snakes in Ireland, which has caused people to think “snakes” is more of a metaphor for evil or pagan beliefs.

Why is There a Pot of Gold at The End of the Rainbow?

One of the most storied rainbow myths is that there's a pot of gold at the end of every one. Not only that, but that the pot of gold is guarded by a tricky leprechaun. The legend goes like this:

Once upon a time, the Vikings lived in Ireland, looting and plundering as they pleased, then burying their ill-gotten treasures all over the countryside. When they eventually departed from the Emerald Isle, they inadvertently left behind some of their booty, which the leprechauns found. Now, the leprechauns knew the Vikings had gotten their treasures through stealing, which was wrong. This bad behavior made the leprechauns mistrust all people, Viking or not. In order to ensure no humans could take what they now considered their gold, the leprechauns reburied it in pots deep underground all over the island. When rainbows appear, they always end at a spot where some leprechaun's pot of gold is buried.

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Have There Always Been Parades?

The first St. Patrick's Day parade wasn't held in Ireland but in the U.S. Well, technically "the colonies." In 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English army celebrated the holiday by marching through the streets of New York City. By 1848, the parade was an official city event and today nearly 3 million people line New York City's streets to watch the five-hour-long, 150,000-participant procession.

Though unofficial St. Patrick's Day parades were held throughout Ireland in the 19th century, and despite the fact that the day was declared a public holiday in 1903, the first official celebration in Dublin did not occur until 1931. The city of Belfast didn't have its first St. Patrick's Day parade until 1998 because of Protestant hostility toward the display of Irish national symbols. Recent parades in the region have required that people wave the more neutral shamrock flag, not the Irish one.

What Does the Tricolor Irish Flag Represent?

In the 19th century various tricolour flags and ribbons came to be symbolic of Irish nationalism. Many of them included the colours green (for the Roman Catholics), orange (for the Protestants), and white (for peace between them). The first known vertical tricolour flag of orange-white-green dated from March 1848, but it was not until 1917 that it gained widespread popularity. The tricolour in its modern form (green-white-orange) was recognized by the constitution on December 29, 1937, and was not altered when the Republic of Ireland ended its participation in the British Commonwealth on April 18, 1949. 

Was St. Patrick's Day Always a Day for Drinking?

Like so many holidays, St. Patrick’s Day started as a religious observance—sober in every sense of the word. In 1631, the Catholic church established a feast day to honor the fifth century missionary Patrick. Not only was it not the debaucherous event we know today, the pubs were actually closed down so the faithful could go to church.

But as for the observance itself, because the feast day fell during lent each year, people throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries began using it as an excuse to take a break from the various pleasures they had to abstain from between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Gradually, as the Irish population in the United States grew, the holiday began to take on some of the more secular elements we recognize today.

Was St. Patrick Actually Irish?

Patrick was born in AD 387 just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, which was part of the Roman Empire (that’s right — he wasn’t Irish!). He was captured by Irish pagans in his early teens and taken to Ireland, where he was enslaved for six years. During that time, he grew to like the spirit of the Irish. When he escaped and returned to his family, he vowed to one day return to Ireland. Patrick traveled from town to town, tearing down idols and temples and establishing the Catholic Church. He died on March 17, 461, of natural causes. He is buried in Downpatrick in present-day Northern Ireland.

Was Patrick Even His Real Name?

No - St. Patrick was actually born Maewyn Succat, according to legend; he changed his name to Patricius, or Patrick, which derives from the Latin term for "father figure," when he became a priest.

What's Up with Green Beer?

As for green beer, that tradition comes from American shores, not Irish ones. The first batch is credited to a Bronx coroner’s physician named Thomas Curtin, who made it in 1914 with an iron powder for use on clothing called wash blue. Since that fateful St. Patrick’s Day more than 100 years ago it’s become ubiquitous, in part thanks to a marketing push around Budweiser beer in the 1980s. Nowadays, green beer is made by mixing green liquid food coloring into light ale. But if you want to drink like the Irish, stick to Guinness.

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Why do people say "Kiss Me, I'm Irish"?

Kissing someone who is Irish is pretty much the next best thing to kissing the stone in Blarney Castle, which is likely where this famous saying comes from. According to legend, kissing the stone will give you the power of eloquent and persuasive speech. One story dates back to 1440s when the builder of the castle, Cormac Laidir MacCarthy, was in a lawsuit and needed some extra luck. He sought out Clíodhna (goddess of love and beauty) and she told him to kiss a stone on his way to court. He did, and he won his case. Later he took that same stone and installed it into the castle. Nowadays, the stone gets millions of visitors at Blarney Castle, outside Cork, Ireland, with the hope the stone has the same impact on their own lives.

Holiday Greeting Cards?

Apparently they're really popular. Hallmark started producing the green-themed cards back in the early 1920s. They now offer more than 100 cards dedicated to the holiday. There's the one of a Dalmatian covered in four-leaf clover instead of black spots. It reads, "On St. Patrick's Day, everybody's Irish." There's also an e-card with a dancing mug of green beer set to Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance." Hallmark says 12 million Americans exchange St. Patrick's Day cards each year. The company's sales are highest in the Northeast, with New York City topping the list.

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