by Jillian Oliver

With green rivers, green beer, green getup, and a ruckus that could be caused by a horde of leprechauns, St. Patrick's Day is the very meaning of joviality.

Wherever there are people with Irish blood (or at least pretending to have Irish blood), there's a Paddy's Day bash rife with green and Guinness.

But there's something odd about this universal celebration on March 17th of a 1,500-year-old patron saint, that involves shamrock symbolism, the wearing of green, and the imbibing of beer.

It's a time of unity and bonding through shenanigans and festivities, but is it really rooted in solidarity as we might think?

The holiday has a working-class spirit to it, but never seems to be featured in the literature of popular Irish authors, such as James Joyce and Oscar Wilde.

Some say it's no accident that there was nary a word written about the holiday by the high-brow writers of old. One of the few writers to talk about the holiday was Sean O' Casey, who wrote extensively about the working class.

In his short essay entitled St. Patrick's Day in the Morning he wrote from the pub,

All of us are Irish for that day, anyhow; the holy-day and holiday of us Irish wherever we may be – at home, on the sea, in the deep Canadian woods, or pushing along the crowd-clustered avenues of New York City.
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Flag of Ireland Ireland

His words were as true in 1953 as they are today.

But it begs the question, how did this mysterious holiday take hold of the hearts and minds of both the Irish and non-Irish alike?

Hot Shots:

St. Patrick was born in Britain
Officially made it on Ireland's calendar in 1607
Corned beef and cabbage as a staple began in America
First Irish pub in the U.S. opened in 1854 in New York

Ireland's Patron Saint . . . Who Wasn’t Irish

The roots of St. Patrick's Day lead us back to the man of its namesake, Saint Patrick, or Patricius as he later called himself in his writings. And it may come as a surprise to some folks that our man of the hour was not actually from the Emerald Isle.

He was born in the late 4th century in Roman Britain. Not much is known about his early life, or even precisely where he was born, but researchers think Wales was his likely birthplace.

His father, Calpurnius, was a Christian civil servant and his grandfather was a Catholic priest (celibacy wasn't required of priests back in the day).

One day, the 16-year-old Patrick certainly didn't have the luck of the Irish when he was captured and enslaved by Irish marauders.

He was put to work as a shepherd on the slopes of what is now County Antrim in Northern Ireland. All the while, he had no interest in the pagan gods of his captors. He remained devoted to the Christian God during his six-year enslavement.

But in that sixth year, he had a vision - an angel came to him and pointed him toward an escape to his homeland. The ocean-locked country seemed inescapable, but he nevertheless kept his faith and traversed 200 miles to the shoreline.

At the shore he encountered a boat traveling east. Patrick hopped aboard and wound up in France. It wasn’t quite Britain but at least he was free.

While in France he settled in the Tours region and became a priest. He then had another angelic visitor who told him to return to Ireland as a missionary and spread his faith to his former captors.

In history, he's lauded as the founding father of Christianity in Ireland, even though there were priests in the country before him. There was something about Patrick's story, maybe the asceticism of his plight, that made him an intriguing figure.

He's portrayed as a prolific missionary who used the shamrock to explain the holy trinity. But in legends, he's also imbued with mystical powers and the ability to perform miracles.

His most ostentatious miracle was the banishing of snakes from Ireland–even though Ireland never actually had snakes. Snakes don’t do that well in frigid oceans, as it turns out.

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It's believed Patrick died sometime in the late 5th century, most likely on March 17th; which solves the mystery of why we raise our stouts to the itinerant apostle on that day.

But how did St. Patrick's Day eventually become a widely recognized day of celebration?

The Holiday's Evolution

In Ireland, the celebration of saints involved a feast day, where people would go on a pilgrimage to a sacred site and have a hearty celebration. The anniversary of St. Patrick's death was one such occasion.

By 1607, you could find March 17th marked on the Irish legal calendar as a saint's day. From then on, St. Patrick would forever be tied to Ireland's Christianization.

Around the same time, Pope Urban VIII took an opportunity to strengthen his claim of authority over the Celtic Church by supporting the cult of Patrick and adding the celebration to the Vatican's calendar.

What the history books don't mention is that the Pope may have wanted an excuse to party like the rest of us . . .

But the festive atmosphere of the day was due not only to the Irish tradition of feasting on saint's days, but also their custom of holding fairs and markets.

As the celebration evolved, it incorporated elements of religious observance and popular festivals. And popular festival translates to Irish music, dance, food, and, of course, booze.

But the image of St. Patrick as a holy man didn't get completely lost within the festivities, with the saint's likeness appearing on coinage in the 18th century. He even graced stained glass windows, replete with his shamrock.

Even though the holiday was becoming more widespread, the Reformation of Ireland brought more Protestant influence and more restrictions on Catholic religious practices, causing St. Patrick's Day to go off and on the calendar during the 18th century.

But when a Protestant-based Irish nationalism evolved, St. Patrick remained a significant figure to people of this political and religious bent. Therefore, the holiday showed no signs of going away.

But the shaky political environment of the 1790s eventually brought another divide. With the rise of the United Irishmen, a group that aimed to free Ireland from England's grip, a rebellion broke out and resulted in religious violence.

Probably not the best way to kick off a celebration, but I suppose the Irish have their ways.

The English eventually quashed the rebellion. The Anglo-Irish elites still wanted to celebrate St. Patrick's day, but also display loyalty to the Crown. Their celebrations were ostentatiously held in Dublin Castle and Catholics were barred from joining.

Consequently, St. Patrick's Day became a point of contention between the Catholic and Anglican churches.

New World, New Start?

The first Irish emigration to the U.S. occurred in the latter part of the 17th century through the 18th century. Many of these folks were Catholics who were trying to escape poverty in their homeland, resulting in almost half a million Irish immigrants in the U.S. by 1790.

Boston was the first city in North America to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. They already had a Protestant Irish group that settled in the area in the early 18th century, and they were already familiar with Anglo-Irish observance of the saint's day.

In 1737, the city was suffering from high inflation and bad winters, making poverty a norm in the city. To ameliorate the suffering of their comrades, Boston's Irish Nation formed a charitable society to aid the old and sick.

But this show of solidarity with the new Irish immigrants came with some elitist conditions: the managers of the charity had to be Protestant. Plus, its members couldn't look all dirty and working-class.

As the Irish settled in the new world, the celebration continued to spread, but there was still a divide between the more elite Protestant Irish who were affiliated with the British Empire and the largely Catholic working class.

The potato famine of 1845 brought more Catholic Irish to the U.S. than ever before. And as a show of strength and pride, they took to the streets in St. Paddy's Day parades.

Cave Entrace

The attitudes toward the Irish improved after they served in the Civil War, and soon many non-Irish wanted to get in on the festivities of the Celtic celebration.

The feast of corned beef and cabbage was part of the Irish integration in America. Even though ham and cabbage were eaten in Ireland, corned beef could be acquired at a cheaper price from ships returning from the tea trade in China. And today it remains a staple on the holiday.

In the midst of all the festivities of America's St. Patrick's Day, Ireland's celebrations were far more subdued, with many pubs being closed on saint's day–perish the thought!

The only way you could get alcohol was at the Royal Dublin Dog Show. Naturally, lots of folks quickly became canine lovers on St. Paddy's Day.

But luckily for the Irish, this travesty ended in 1961, and the American-style parades, feasts, and imbibing sailed over to Ireland.

Wild Celebrations in New Orleans and Savannah

You'll still find wild parades and green rivers in Boston on St. Patrick's Day and plenty of festivities in New York, including McSorley's Old Ale House–the oldest Irish bar in America, established in 1854.

But for those who are partial to the South, Georgia has one of the highest numbers of Irish descendants in the nation, and the city of Savannah holds one of the wildest parties in honor of Emerald Isle's patron saint.

And they don't go light on the emerald!

At Forsyth Park, amid old-fashioned lamp posts and arching tree branches dripping moss, stands a grand fountain that rains a majestic green for the celebration.

Later on, the parade marches through the downtown historic district where you'll see Irish floats, pipe and drum corps, and marching bands.

Not to mention, there's a band of bars, Irish and otherwise, that will sate your thirst for Irish Whiskey, Guinness, or anything else your palate craves.

Oh, and did I mention that the city is considered open-carry so you can sip and stroll? That’s part of what makes our tours in Savannah so darn fun!

O'Connell's Irish Pub serves up the ideal Guinness pour and offers an authentic Irish experience. If you're aiming to tap into the English side of history, Six Pence Pub will offer a unique English-vibe along with an exceptional craft beer menu.

But you also can't talk about St. Paddy's Day celebrations in the South without talking about New Orleans.

Aside from its heavy Spanish and French influence, the Big Easy's Irish immigrants left their fingerprint on the city.

In the 1830s, the New Orleans Irish labored on the canal that connects Uptown to Lake Pontchartrain. And although 1000s died during that time, survivors settled on Magazine St. in an area now called the Irish Channel.

Given the city's history with Mardi Gras, it's certainly no stranger to parades and widespread celebration. The Irish Channel has a particularly loved parade that begins at St. Mary's Assumption Church and it contains plenty of Irish themed floats.

A block party is held at Parasol's Bar and Restaurant–an Irish bar that's considered ground zero for St. Paddy's Day. At the party, you can fill your stomach with corned beef and cabbage, not to mention a slew of tap beers and whiskey.

Tracey's Bar has been in operation since 1949 and has seen many parties in the Irish Channel and it stands right with Parasol's in its skillful serving of green beers and a hearty feast!

St. Patrick’s Day typically falls not too long after Mardi Gras. That gives revelers enough time to recover from the festivities but still has them thirsty for just one more party. Perfect timing!

The Bash Goes On

St. Patrick's Day has a long and complicated history, as do the Irish themselves. But out of all the conflicts and strife emerged a unifying celebration that brings people together from many ethnic backgrounds.

One could say that its convivial atmosphere has a special ability to overcome disparities in class and religion and to welcome everyone from the secular to the devout.

And, if nothing else, we can all agree that there's no better way to connect with others than over an ice-cold beer, vibrant music, and a thrilling parade!