Almost everyone around the world knows about Saint Patrick’s Day, but not so many people know why this day is special in Ireland. In 2021, when most of the world’s pubs are closed and nobody can go grab a beer on 17 March, another kind of celebration is organised.
Every country has its important days, either national days or bank holidays, either being an opportunity to celebrate or an occasion to fulfil the duty of remembrance. However, there are not a lot of national days that create as much passion as Saint Patrick’s Day, not only in Ireland, but all around the world.
Saint Patrick’s Day is an important day of celebrations for Irish expats around the world, of course. It’s a way for them to gather and celebrate their country even if they are thousands of kilometres away. It’s also important for foreigners living in Ireland to know about this special day, so they can partake in the celebrations and have their fair share of the special Irish atmosphere on this day.
- An Taoiseach Varadkar on St Patrick’s Day: Come together as a nation by staying apart from each other
- The gatekeeping of Irish culture
Yet, people don’t always know that this festive day is actually the country’s national day. It’s more about celebrating Irish culture than it is about history and nationalism, but do you actually know why this day is so special? What does it represent and who Saint Patrick was? In this article, you will get the answers to these questions and you will see how Saint Patrick’s Day will still be celebrated, even during a global pandemic.
Who was Saint Patrick?
As the day’s name shows, Saint Patrick’s Day is related to Saint Patrick. To know what this day represents we need to wonder who this man was and what he did to become so famous in Ireland. It might surprise you to read that this man was actually born in Britain, yet he is Ireland’s apostle.
“He is the one who is supposed to have brought Christianity to the island,” Frédéric Armao, an Associate Professor at the University of Toulon, explains. “Tradition holds that, after being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, he came in Ireland in 432 and began his mission as an apostle.” However, in his university class on Irish history, the professor also warns his students: “Very little is known of his life and one must be aware that many of the stories and traditions attached to the saint are probably not historical facts.”
If Saint Patrick is known for having started the peaceful Christianisation of the island, other sources show that Christians were probably already here: in 431, Bishop Palladius was sent by Rome “to the Irish that believe in Christ”. This implies that Christians were already living in Ireland before Saint Patrick’s arrival in 432, probably because even without being a part of the Roman Empire, the island had commercial links to the Empire through maritime trade.
“Some academics even believe that there were in fact two Patricks, and possibly three,” the professor adds. But Saint Patrick’s legend lives because of its strong symbolism, linked to what became an Irish national symbol: “He is famous for having used a shamrock – a three-leaf clover – so to explain the concept of the Trinity to pagans.” By showing a single shamrock divided into three leaves, Patrick is understood to have explained the division between God the Father, God the Son (Christ), and the Holy Spirit.
However, this story doesn’t stand on historical facts but was invented by hagiographers (biographers of saints or venerated persons) centuries after Patrick’s death.
More than a saint and a national symbol, Saint Patrick can also be seen as a figure of unity: “Interestingly enough, he is claimed by both Catholics and Protestants in Ireland,” Prof Armao notes. Today, even if celebrating a Christian saint in a multicultural society is something that should be debated, Armao argues for a larger understanding of what Patrick represents: “he is a central figure of Irish history and myths.”
Where does Saint Patrick’s Day come from?
The 17th of March has been chosen to celebrate this saint, because it’s supposed to be the date of his death. Prof Armao mentions that other reasons can be found to explain the significance of this particular day: “The fact that it is so close to the spring equinox must not be looked over.” Indeed, symbols surrounding spring can also be part of the reasons why this day was chosen, “spring evoking light and rebirth.”
Today, a lot of traditions revolve around Saint Patrick. The day became a public holiday in 1903 with the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act 1903, when Ireland was still a part of the United Kingdom. However, “the saint has long been associated with Ireland,” the professor explains by mentioning the representation of Saint Patrick’s cross on what was the Irish flag at the time, which was adopted in 1783.
(Image credit: Heralder)
For Prof Armao, it makes sense to make the date of his death a holiday, but surprisingly enough, the celebrations on Saint Patrick’s Day haven’t always been as popular as they are today, even in Ireland. To establish this tradition of big celebrations, “the influence of Irish American [Irish people who had fled from Ireland in the 19th century and settled in the United States] was of utmost importance”.
The professor even explains that it was in the USA that the celebrations were the most popular, as early as the late 18thcentury probably because “they created a sense of community among Irish people who were so far from what used to be home.” The celebrations and the parades then spread all over the world from the USA, until they came back to Ireland and established themselves in the Irish landscape.
“Different factors turned the celebration of a Christian saint into a worldwide, joyful event where people dress in green and drink beer,” Prof Armao remarks. “I can only note that this evolution probably mirrors the evolution of society as a whole, to some extent.”
Today, celebrations take place all around the world on Saint Patrick’s Day, mainly to celebrate Irish culture, even among non-Irish people. “Saint Patrick is a recognizable figure of Irishness worldwide,” the professor adds. The Irish government even uses Saint Patrick’s Day as a way to celebrate and promote Ireland’s economic and political interests around the world.
On 17 March, the Chicago River; a fountain in Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia; and even a fountain on the south lawn of the White House are dyed green in the United States; the Vilnia River in Lithuania also takes this colour. Famous monuments like the London Eye, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Sacré Coeur Basilica in Paris, and the Empire State Building in New York are all lit or illuminated in green.
How to enjoy Saint Patrick’s Day atmosphere during a global pandemic?
Celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day the way you usually do it will be complicated this year. Just like last year, when some people saw their plans cancelled at the last minute, we are in lockdown, and people don’t want to live the same thing again this year.
Don’t worry! You’ll still be able to enjoy Saint Patrick’s Day in 2021: an online Saint Patrick’s festival is organised from 12 to 17 March.
“While we cannot gather on the streets of Ireland this year to celebrate our national day, we are delighted to bring the 2021 national St. Patrick’s Festival to life online,” you can read on the festival’s website. “The Festival theme is Dúisigh Éire! Awaken Ireland! It is a clarion call to all our people across the world to throw off the long, dark months and rise to embrace the brighter days ahead.” With this message of hope for a better future, the festival starts tomorrow and will be showcased on the dedicated online TV channel SPF TV.
According to their press release, the festival “promises to be a positive and uplifting celebration of our incredible people, our beautiful island, our community bonds, our young people, artists, creators and makers, and our diaspora across the world.” The main goal is to “connect our global family, to mark our national day, through remembrance and celebration, song and story, laughter and tears, exploring the unique ties that bind us as a people.”
Over the course of five days, more than 100 events will take place online, with something for everyone. “Audiences can stream our full programme of events in real time, ensuring that we can celebrate together even though we are apart,” the website describes. Replays will also be available until March 21.
The complete program is already available here and the events will be accessible at the scheduled dates and hours, with “a rich and dynamic series of events […] safely created and recorded by hundreds of artists, musicians, performers, makers, creators, arts and live events workers and community organisations across Ireland”, the press release adds.
(Image credit: Allen Kiely)
The festival proposes various kinds of events like performances and “fun experiences” for families and young people, contemporary and traditional Irish music, the opportunity for “the world to explore Ireland through the lens of film, poetry, literature, performance and arts” and a category called Living Ireland, described by the festival teams as “a reflection of Ireland now, how we live and love, work and play, make, create, remember and celebrate.”
“As we move from winter into spring, people across the country and our diaspora awaken with a new hope, a new shared vision of positivity for our future. Dúisigh Éire! Awaken Ireland! will capture this sense of hope and optimism, […] celebrating our contemporary culture and those who have influenced us. We recognise a year of loss and isolation, and also one of community action, local and international heroes and the indomitable spirit of the Irish.” (Anna McGowan, Interim Director of St. Patrick’s Festival)
Even if the celebrations will be held in the confines of our homes, the Saint Patrick’s Festival will help not only Irish people at home and abroad, but also every non-Irish person interested in this national day, to enjoy this special moment for five days. And maybe we will forget for a few nights the stressful atmosphere we all live in to enjoy this shared cultural experience.
The origins of Saint Patrick’s Day are older than a lot of national days in the world. Saint Patrick has become a symbol of Ireland around the world, and he’s now celebrated every year, even among non-Irish populations. Even if these joyful celebrations won’t be the same this year, you can still find a safe way to enjoy it, thanks to these online events.
Did you know about the history of Saint Patrick? And do you plan on celebrating it this year? Let us know in the comment section!