For lots of St. Patrick’s Day partiers, the history of the holiday doesn’t factor much into their celebration. It’s more about green beer and the unfortunate—also green—effects of drinking too much of it. But March 17th is more than an excuse to put on a shamrock t-shirt and drink too much. Here’s the history behind St. Patrick’s Day.
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.
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 records there never were any snakes in Ireland, which has caused people to think “snakes” is more of a metaphor for evil or pagan beliefs.
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, like the first parades, which began in Boston and New York in the mid 1700s.
Those early parades probably didn’t feature much green though. Until the Irish Rebellion, which saw the Irish fight against British rule in Ireland, the color most associated with St. Patrick’s Day was blue. But during the uprising, Irish rebels wore green in opposition to the red of the British army. Ever since, the Irish and the people who love them don the color on St. Patrick’s Day.
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. But neither tradition nor marketing make green beer any less gross. If you want to drink something appropriate for St. Patrick’s Day, throw back a Guinness—it’ll be one of 13 million drunk worldwide. You can raise a toast to Patricius and his once quiet and somber feast day. At least you can if you can lift your arm through the crush of people surrounding you at the bar. Sláinte.