Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
March 17th, 2012

Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day

Why we celebrate a Saint with song and drink


It’s March. The air is getting slightly less frigid, the wind is blowing, the snow is (God willing) starting to melt. This can only mean one thing: it’s time to start rocking the green and drinking the beer. In other words, it’s time to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Whether you’re Irish and Catholic or anything else imaginable, March 17 is a day of revelry and fun, where everyone takes part in the traditional celebratory green beer and expects kisses simply for being “Irish” (even when they’re not). All this revelry is understandable in celebration of such a wonderful saint, but the question has to be asked: Why do we celebrate a man of God with excessive drinking, songs, and the color green? It might not seem likely, but these modern traditions do actually make perfect sense, if you know the Irish.

St. Patrick is considered an Irish saint, though he was most likely from Wales or Gaul, who lived and preached in the fifth century. After being kidnapped and taken to Ireland at the age of 16, he worked as a shepherd and grew closer to God in his isolation. One day, thanks to a vision from God, he escaped and returned home. Not long after that, he received another vision, directing him to become a priest and convert the Irish people. This he did, with a vengeance. He baptized thousands, and even managed to rid them of their pesky snake problem. He was so popular that, when he died on March 17 in 493, there was even a fight over his body. Legend has it that he was finally laid to rest beside St. Brigid and St. Columba. There he supposedly rests to this day.

Origins of the festivities

So why, when most saint’s feast days center around attending Mass, praying, and generally doing “Catholic stuff” do we celebrate Patrick with drinking, singing, parades, and ridiculously kitschy accoutrement? The simple answer: we’re Irish and he’s popular. Put those two together and you get the modern St. Patrick’s Day. In New York City, for instance, there is the largest parade of its kind, dating back to 1762, hosting marching bands and step dancers, police, firemen, and just about every other group that is made up largely of Irishmen. People line the streets, keeping warm with, ahem, adult beverages and Aran sweaters. They spray their hair green and wear the phrase “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” emblazoned on anything you can imagine. They wear light up shamrocks on their heads and dangling from their ears. They drink green beer. In Chicago, they go a step further with the green theme, dying the entire river green just for the special day.

Why green?

So why do we celebrate Patrick with drinking, singing, parades, and ridiculously kitschy accoutrement? The simple answer: we’re Irish and he’s popular. Put those two together and you get the modern St. Patrick’s Day.

As my last name is Green, through marriage at least, I consider myself an expert on this topic. Have you ever seen pictures of Ireland? It’s green. There’s really no other reason for the connection between the color and the saint. I could tell you there’s some higher meaning, a relationship between green being the color of rebirth, of spring, and therefore a symbol of the life of Christ in St. Patrick and his followers, but it’s not. It’s just a color, the color of the “Emerald Isle,” and therefore of St. Patrick’s Day. Just go with it, and have fun.

Why shamrocks?

Here, we can make connections between the Catholic faith St. Patrick preached and the abundant foliage of the land where he lived. In Ireland, shamrocks grow like grass. They’re everywhere. But so does, well, grass. Why do we associate this little three-leaf clover with St. Patrick and his day? The story goes that, while preaching to some pagans, St. Patrick plucked a shamrock from the ground, and used it, with its three leaves in one plant, to explain the Mystery of the Trinity, with Its Three Persons in One God. The image stuck and here we are, 1,500 years later, still using the same plant for the same reason. What can I say? When you find a good metaphor, you stick with it.

Why the singing and drinking?

Hello? Have you met the Irish? We celebrate everything with drinks and songs. We drink to commemorate weddings and wars, births and deaths, and everything in between. To quote that great Catholic author, G. K. Chesterton, “The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made made,/For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.” An Irish wake is a prime example of this. Once, when we were “waking” a family friend, a group of us started belting out the song “There’s Got to Be a Morning After” (the rousing disco ballad from the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure). The Italian funeral director came running in to the room to find out who was being so disrespectful. Imagine the look on his face when he realized it was us, the “family,” who had started the commotion. I believe there was also some alcohol involved, now that I think about it. It makes sense to the Irish to celebrate all seasons of life with the gifts God has given us, and two of those gifts are song and alcohol. To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without either of them just wouldn’t be Irish.

So there you have it, the cultural and spiritual history of our common St. Patrick’s Day revelries. Are there ways to make the holiday “holier”? Yes. Are they as much fun as the whiskey and the green hair? Probably not, but that’s OK. God likes to “meet us where we are” on our road to Him, and if that road happens to pass through a bar or two on our way to heaven, I’m sure God understands. Have a happy St. Paddy’s Day, and try not to go overboard on the green beer. I’ve heard it leaves you with one helluva bad hangover.

The Author : Bridget Green
Bridget Green is a lifelong Catholic, and a native of New Jersey. She lives a big life in a small apartment with her husband and their five children. When not homemaking, homeschooling, folding laundry or fixing dinner, she writes about all of it on her blog, Life at Le. Rheims.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Veronica

    Good article…I think if you’re an “old-fashioned” Catholic who attended Catholic schools, you know the stories and legends of most of the saints. While it can be frustrating to see St. Valentine’s and St. Patrick’s feast days become more commercialized and secular, it’s up to parents and adults of influence to teach our children the “real” stories. It’s like Christmas…we need to emphasize the spiritual aspects with our families. As for excess drinking and partying, it can be said almost all ethnicities are assumed to participate in these activities. Cinco de Mayo is more a commemoration of a one battle, and yet it’s treated as a reason to drink lots of tequila and eat nachos. Education is necessary to reverse some of these assumptions about all ethnicities.

  • Bridget Green

    Elizabeth, first, thanks for reading! Second, which politicians are working to help our people? Most of the politicians who supposedly “support” the Irish people and their concerns are liberal Democrats who are also totally anti-Catholic and anti-life so I’m not sure how they really “help” anyone. The unions are just an arm of the Democrats and don’t help the Irish do anything but stay down.
    The article was intended to show that there is in fact a link between the revelries and celebrations associated with the saint and his and not at all meant to paint all Irishmen as drunks. I personally don’t even drink. The fact cannot be denied though that drinking, partying, and singing are all huge parts of the Irish/Irish American culture. I don’t feel that they were born out of sadness and poverty but out of a love of the natural gifts God has given us. Do people take the drinking too far? Yes, sadly, they do. But does that mean that talking about drinking implies that all of us drink too much? I simply don’t see how that connection can be made.
    Thanks again for reading though, and I welcome any other thoughts you may wish to share!

  • Elizabeth

    This was a well-written article though some of the content I could do without. As an Irish-American it gets old when your people are reduced to smiling, drinking fools by others. To read an Irish American’s article do the same saddens me even more.

    The parades….occur after Mass. Sure not every spectator goes to the Mass before but you’d be surprised at how full the churches are. They are also a chance for everyone to be Irish for a day, the true beauty that this day has like no other.

    The drinking, in Irish culture like that of other cultures, was born out of poverty, sadness, and poor living conditions. Sadly, these days, moderate drinking to celebrate the elimination of most of these factors for many of us, is not enough. People take things too far, drink in excess, and suddenly all of us are labeled drunks.

    The culture goes beyond drinking and the people associated with those parades are part of that.
    1) Politicians working to help our people and all people.
    2) Authors preserving Irish history.
    3) Children learning true Irish dancing and culture.

    I just wish that stuff was written about more. We need better press and not more of the same.

  • kelly

    I too think this was a great article and one I will save for my children to read. But, my kids are actually afraid of St. Patrick’s day parades. The local one is really only about complete excessive drinking and was so out of hand last year that parade-attendees actually broke in and looted surrounding homes. Total mahem. My children, leaving ballet, saw a lot of the crazyness from the car windows and have no desire to partcipate and have asked innumerable times why anyone would try to ruin St. Patrick’s name this way. A year later, they are still talking about it. At least I have your wonderful article to show them!

  • Lori

    Thanks for the fun explanation of St Patrick’s day. I’m left with a green peaceful feeling and the urge to have a beer!

  • Maria

    I can hear you reciting it as I’m reading it! Fun article!

  • Barbara

    Good job! As an Catholic who’s also an Irish-American I’ve always loved that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve never heard anyone say everyone’s Italian on Columbus Day. Plus, it’s good to remember all the immigrants who came here and worked as servants just to be free and give their children better lives. I am proud of my heritage, especially on St. Patrick’s Day!

  • Maureen

    Great article, Bridget.Can’t wait to see your next contribution to Busted Halo!

  • Nancy

    You missed the biggest hallmark of St Patrick’s Day revelry: it’s an Irish-American holiday. Up until a few years ago Ireland didn’t even have a parade; it was a holy day with mass attendance and pubs closed. They finally caved to all the potential of Yankee dollars and started celebrating it American style.

  • Karla

    While you explanations are great, especially for those less familiar with the meaning behind the celebrations, this is another day like St. Valentine’s day that I have a hard time really getting in to since it has become such a secular holiday. Makes me wonder what St. Patrick, in his superior ability to convert people, would have done in today’s world on say Bourbon Street on March 17th. I think he may have pulled up a chair and had ONE beer and spoke with the people. Cheers

  • Tim

    Great piece, Mrs. GREEN. Love it.

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