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A history of St Patrick's Day traditions and customs

Life in the Community exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life, Castlebar, Mayo

For centuries, the Irish and our diaspora have proudly celebrated St Patrick, our patron saint, on 17 March. 

The extravagant parades of the modern era and Tourism Ireland's phenomenal 'global greening' of famous landmarks have ensured St Patrick continues to be showcased on a world stage each year. 

Clodagh Doyle, Keeper of the Irish Folklife Division at the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life, believes St Patrick has possibly become one of the most famous saints in the world. His feastday on 17 March is better known than that of even the Christmas saint, St Nicholas, on 6 January.

So how did our commemoration of a fifth-century bishop become such an iconic and internationally recognised festival?  

“The celebration of St Patrick’s Day has long been an important date in the Irish folk calendar,” explains Clodagh. “The traditions observed today have been noted over the centuries and evidence for these can be found in our early Irish literature and in our folklore. Some of these folk customs developed over time into the St Patrick's Day festival we recognise today."

Here, Clodagh takes us through the origins and meaning of some of those Patrician traditions.

St Patrick and the shamrock

St Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland and one of the most famous symbols of the saint is the shamrock. However, the widely held belief that he 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.

Badges and rosettes

Children made and wore St Patrick’s Day badges in folk tradition. These circular badges incorporated the cross of St Patrick, and there are many colourful examples in the National Folklife Collection.
Boys generally wore badges that used coloured paper to form the cross and decoration. Girls typically used fabric and coloured ribbon, often gathering the ribbon to form small rosette decorations 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 streets of Dublin. The modern green rosettes for sale today originated from this custom.

Lenten reprieve

Lent was an extremely austere time in Ireland in years gone by. People refrained from eating meat, dairy or eggs; and drinking, dancing and celebrations such as weddings were strictly forbidden for this 40-day period. The Irish got a welcome reprieve from the strict Lenten restrictions, as they were temporarily lifted on 17 March so people could honour their national saint.

‘Lenten Fish’

On St Patrick’s Day, a meal containing meat was usually eaten after Mass. This was sometimes called ‘Lenten Fish’. The name derives from the folk story that Patrick himself 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

St. Patrick’s Pot’ or Póta Phádraig was a common term for the alcoholic drink consumed to honour the saint. To ‘drown the shamrock’, people threw their worn shamrock into their drink and toasted the saint. Afterwards, the shamrock was thrown over the shoulder for luck.

Excessive drinking and the Temperance Movement

Excessive drinking – no doubt due to the fact that people knew they only had one day to enjoy themselves before taking up their Lenten vows again – became an area of concern. This was targeted by the Temperance Movement during the first half of the 19th century, who held parades on the day as an alternative (alcohol-free) form of entertainment. While there had previously been marches across Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, these decorated temperance processions were the first carnival parades. They often included pipe bands from the church, a tradition, still widely practised today.

The development of the modern parade

In Britain, America, Canada and Australia, parade celebrations were organised by benevolent societies promoting the emigrant Irish in the cities of their new homeland. Irish military regiments often took part in the parade.
The extravagant parades we recognise today were actually imported back to Ireland from overseas. 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. It is now a week-long festival and promoted with nationwide events.

Holy wells and pilgrimage sites

Many people would visit a holy well or site associated with the saint on his feastday. There are many such holy sites throughout Ireland because St Patrick was believed to have travelled throughout the country preaching Christianity. Stories recount instances where St Patrick struck his crozier to the ground, and a holy well would spring up on that site. Pilgrims also climbed Croagh Patrick – a holy mountain in Co. Mayo where St Patrick was said to have fasted for 40 days. According to the Annals of 1113AD, forty pilgrims were killed when the mountain was struck by lightning as they climbed to the summit on St Patrick’s Day.

St Patrick in our everyday lives

Many placenames include variations of Patrick in them and illustrate a connection to the saint, like Downpatrick. Some names connect the place to his holy well (Patrickswell) or other land features such as churches (Kilpatrick) or forts (Lispatrick).

We name our churches, schools, hospitals after him and there is hardly a place in Ireland without a Patrick’s Street! St Patrick features in humour folktales and especially in our jokes and the slang we use. He is remembered in our prayers, blessings, hymns, ballads and traditional music.

We all know a person with the surname, Fitzpatrick or Mc Giolla Phádraig but the tradition of it as a chosen first name continues among the Irish at home and abroad. We all know a Patrick, Paddy, Pádraig, Padraic, Páid, Paudy, Packie, Patsy, Pattie, Pat, Patricia and everyone can think of a world-famous sportsperson or actor with one of those names.

 Clodagh Doyle, Keeper, Irish Folklife Division.


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