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St. Patrick and Tradition

Objects associated with St. Patrick from our Folklife collection


St. Patrick's Cross (N.M.I. Collection - F:1948.18)

The tradition that St Patrick used the shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity is a relatively late one. It is unlikely that the Irish needed explanation of the concept of three persons in one, as triads were central to pre-Christian Celtic religious tradition.

Thomas Dinely, an Englishman travelling through Ireland in 1681 noted that people of all distinctions wore crosses to commemorate the saint on this day, but noted that only the vulgar, as he called them, wore shamrock.

'St. Patrick's day in the morning' (N.M.I. Collection - F:2005.234)

In more recent centuries, the crosses were just worn by children while adults wore the sprig of shamrock. These crosses were most often on a circular shaped badge. Those that boys wore generally featured coloured paper to form the cross and decoration. The girls used fabric and coloured ribbon, often gathering the ribbon to form small rosette decoration on the terminals of the cross. Boys originally wore theirs on one side of their caps but latterly began to wear them like the girls on their right shoulder. By 1908, brightly coloured silk rosettes with glued-on crosses were for sale on the Dublin streets. The modern rosettes have derived from these children’s crosses. 

St. Patrick's Crosses (N.M.I. Collection - from top - F:1948.23, F:1917.1c, F:1948.24)

Everyone knows that all Lenten restrictions are temporarily lifted on 17 March, in honour of our national saint.

On his feastday, a meal containing meat was usually eaten after Mass. This was sometimes called ‘Lenten Fish’ as Patrick was believed to have eaten meat during Lent and was filled with remorse. An angel told him to put the remains of the meat he had eaten in water, upon which they turned to fish. It seems that on his feast day, once meat was dipped in water, people could eat it as ‘St. Patrick’s Fish’.

‘St. Patrick’s Pot’ or Póta Phádraig was a common term for the alcoholic drink consumed to ‘the drown the shamrock’. After a toast to St. Patrick, the shamrock was thrown over the shoulder for luck.

Excessive drinking on the feast day was previously targeted by the Temperance Movement during the first half of the 19th century, who held parades on the day. While there had previously been marches across Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, these decorated temperance processions were the first carnival parades. In Britain, America, Canada and Australia, parade celebrations were organized by benevolent societies promoting the emigrant Irish in the cities of their new homeland.

In the early 1950s, the National Agricultural and Industrial Association, influenced by the large-scale parades abroad, took charge of a parade in Dublin to showcase Irish industry. This parade featured floats from businesses and marching bands. From 1970, the parade was organised by Dublin Tourism until the St. Patrick’s Day Committee was established in 1995 and a weekend festival was developed.

'St. Patrick's day in the evening' (N.M.I. Collection - F:2005.235)