College of Humanities and Social Sciences holidays

The Origins of Saint Patrick’s Day

Blue Shamrock

When you think of Saint Patrick’s Day, the images of pubs decked in green and giant shamrocks and leprechauns are the images most frequently called to mind. But the holiday originally was a somber affair associated with the color blue.

Bryan McGovern, professor of history and author of a series of books and articles about Irish-American nationalism, explains the original celebration was a quiet affair consisting of a simple dinner, attending mass, and occasionally a small parade.

So how did the holiday change so drastically since its origins?

The nationalists, who called themselves United Irishmen and wore green, believed that associating these symbols with the feast of Saint Patrick gave the movement more popular appeal. It wasn’t until after an Irish nationalist uprising in 1798, led primarily by Protestants, that the shamrock and its green color were adopted as nationalist symbols, McGovern explained.

Immigration to the United States led to a large number of Irish Protestants setting up in a new world where they began to make their own mark. Here in this new country, there was a chance for a new myth and a new celebration to truly take root.

“These people really wanted to celebrate their heritage in a very public way,” McGovern said. “This was a chance to present an assertion of identity.”

That meant parades and a loud display. The first parade for Saint Patrick’s Day in the United States happened in 1762 in New York City.

The Irish population continued to grow but it wasn’t until the 1840s and the Great Famine (An Gorta Mor) that a wave of nearly 1 million Irish arrived in America. As these newly arrived Irish people established homes, they brought Saint Patrick’s Day with them, spreading its vibrant green glory across the country.

“What’s fascinating is that the changes that happened here to Saint Patrick’s Day are reflected back in Ireland now,” McGovern explained. Dublin now hosts extravagant Saint Patrick’s Day events and the country is able to capitalize on the holiday through tourism.

No matter its origins and how it’s changed over the years, the celebration St. Patrick’s Day today is best associated with the joy, merriment and good wishes that typically come with it:

“For each petal on the shamrock

This brings a wish your way –

Good health, good luck, and happiness

For today and every day.”

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