St. Patrick’s Day may the day everyone wants to be Irish, but the famous parades and festivities we associate with March 17th actually began in the north-eastern United States, where Irish immigrants wanted some connection back to their homeland and its most celebrated saint.
The Saint’s Life
Ireland was never conquered by the Romans, and the Irish regularly raided Britain. On one such raid, a war party kidnapped a young boy by the name of Patrick from Wales and made him a slave, tasking with looking after their sheep. Eventually, he saw his chance to escape and took it, after a vision from God encouraged him to spread word of the gospels to pagan Ireland. The vision revealed that if he fled to the coast, a ship would be waiting for him, and sure enough, he fled after six long years of servitude. Patrick then travelled to France where he trained to as a priest and returned to Ireland, bringing Christianity with him. You could say it was in his blood, Patrick’s father had been a deacon and his grandfather served as a priest.
While Patrick wasn’t the first missionary sent to Ireland, he is by far the most famous and his simple message of equating the holy trinity to the leaves of a shamrock helped convince the native people to embrace this new faith. Patrick travelled far and wide, establishing monasteries and churches wherever he travelled. From Downpatrick in the north to the area south of the River Liffey (now central Dublin) and the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary, Patrick converted everyone from prince to pauper.
The holy man would have to wait a very long time to get his day, but St. Patrick’s Day became an official Christian feast day early in the 17th century and is widely celebrated by different denominations and the Irish diaspora around the world today. Aside from celebrating the arrival of Patrick, the day lauds the Emerald Isle’s culture and heritage in a general sense and celebrations are usually marked by public festivals and parades, traditional music and dance gatherings, and of course, the wearing of green clothes and shamrocks. It’s also a day to enjoy yourself, as Lenten restrictions on drinking and eating are relaxed for the day.
Saint Patrick is believed to have been born late in the 4th century, and is often confused with Bishop Palladius, sent from Rome by Pope Celestine to be the first bishop of the Christians in Ireland in 431. While Patrick wasn’t first, it was his message which truly sparked the conversion of Ireland. Most of what we know about him comes from Patrick’s own writings, and he described himself as a “most humble-minded man, pouring forth a continuous paean of thanks to his Maker for having chosen him as the instrument whereby multitudes who had worshipped idols and unclean things had become the people of God.”
After the shamrocks, the most popular story about Patrick is that of him driving the snakes from Ireland. There were no snakes living in the Emerald Isle during Patrick’s time, and it’s likely there never were any – Ireland was too cold and has been separated from the rest of Europe since the last Ice Age. Instead, snakes were commonly associated with evil and worshipped by some pagan cults. By driving the snakes from Ireland, Patrick rid the land of darkness and paganism, even converting the pagan druid priests to Christianity.
Patrick travelled to ancient Tara, home of the High Kings of Ireland, and lit a fire – which was banned due to the druid rituals taking place. The Saint was summoned before the king who was so impressed by Patrick’s words that he granted him leave to spread Christianity in Ireland, though he remained a pagan himself. With the druid rituals abandoned, Patrick baptised thousands of Irish people at the Holy Wells which still carry his name. These stories and many more are just part of what we remember today when we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Patrick’s Day Today and Yesterday
Events to mark St. Patrick’s Day are held in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, but nothing can truly match the experience of being in Ireland for the day. It says something about the allure of the day and the thrill of being Irish for the day that astronauts aboard the International Space Station have even taken part is previous years’ celebrations!
The Irish began celebrating St. Patrick’s feast day as sort of early national day from the 9th and 10th centuries, but it would be centuries before he was recognised as the patron saint of Ireland and would not become an official holy day in the Roman Catholic Church until the early 1600s, thanks to the campaigns of Franciscan scholar Luke Wadding, who was born in County Waterford.
St. Patrick’s Day is always celebrated on March 17th (though the religious festivities can be moved to avoid clashing with Easter), and this is because it’s widely accepted that he died on this date. It’s possible to visit his grave on a tour with us in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, not far from the village of Saul where he is believed to have spent his final days. There are those who believe he’s buried in England, most would like to think his final resting place is on the island he held most dear to his heart.
After becoming an official church holiday in the 17th century, Saint Patrick’s Day finally became a national public holiday in Ireland in 1903 after James O’Mara introduced a new bill establishing the dates for Irish public holidays in the British parliament. After independence, Dublin hosted the first Saint Patrick’s Day parade in 1931 and since then the festivities have stretched from one day to six as fairs, amusements, cultural and artistic events have been added which everyone will find enjoyment from when they visit the Emerald Isle at this special time.
All of the world events are held to celebrate the day and while New York might have the biggest parade, the Irish have turned their day into a week-long festival drawing tens of thousands of visitors from around the world. Irish parades for Patrick’s Day are colourful events, filled with floats and colourful costumes and music, much like a Thanksgiving Day parade in the U.S. Many Irish also attend mass or a religious service to mark the day, the traditional date to pray for missionaries around the world.
St. Patrick’s Day is a time for fun and celebrations, and since the 1970s pubs and restaurants have been the only major businesses to open on the day. Otherwise, it’s a day off for many people to attend the parades and other events around the country and no matter where you are in Ireland, there’s bound to be something happening – regardless of whether you’re staying in a B&B in a small town or a hostel or hotel in the heart of Dublin, there’s a strong chance you won’t be far away from the festivities.
St. Patrick’s Festival Dublin 2015
In Dublin, every year the parade focuses on a different theme and in 2015 the participants will look at ‘the present’ as Ireland reflects on the events leading up to independence over the next decade, while 2016’s them of ‘the future’, which seeks to answer who the Irish want to be in a hundred years, will mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising.
Dublin is also home to the largest Patrick’s Day festival in Ireland and there are a huge range of activities for everyone. The Festival Treasure Hunt is great fun for all the family and takes under two hours, but you’ll get to visit plenty of attractions you might otherwise have overlooked and decide to return to later! Dublin was founded by the Vikings, but renowned local historian Pat Liddy offers an informative and exciting walking tour which explores how the people of the area lived during Patrick’s time, during the tour, you’ll visit both St. Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals.
Head down to the iconic River Liffey and watch the Irish version of the Oxford/Cambridge boat race when Trinity College takes on UCD or wander through the historic streets of the city and stumble upon a music or street performance event. Ceili House Live, at the National Concert Hall, is the place to go for traditional music and song, with many venerated Irish instruments such as the bodhran (a type of hollow drum) and the tin whistle being used during performances.
If you’re feeling particularly energetic, another option to consider might be the 5k Road Race which takes you through the heart of Georgian Dublin and all can take part, from families and fun runners to dedicated athletes. On Sunday March 15th, take the kids to the Big Day Out in Merrion Square and enjoy thrilling theatrical and street performances, open-air shows, live music, workshops, art areas, the SFI Discover Science Zone, and so much more.
Famous sites around the world from the Eiffel Tower to the Sydney Opera House light up green to mark St. Patrick’s Day, and not to be outdone, many of Dublin’s most iconic landmarks including Trinity College, Bank of Ireland, Government Buildings, and the Guinness Storehouse get the emerald illumination treatment. Elsewhere in Ireland, castles such as Kilkenny, Trim, and Cahir are all turned green as well.
And then of course, there’s the parade. The St. Patrick’s Day parade begins in the north inner city on Parnell Square at midday and makes its way down O’Connell Street to Westmoreland Street, turning onto Dame Street and Lord Edward Street before ending just past St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There are plenty of good locations to stand if you plan to watch the parade, but arrive early if you want to be at the front and get the best view. There are some hostels and hotels along the route, and if you get a street-side room, you can enjoy a fantastic vantage point of the floats and marching bands as they pass below. If you are out at street level, wrap up warm and remember to bring an umbrella just in case, but it seems Patrick is usually smiling on Ireland on his day and the weather is often quite nice indeed.
Touring Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day
A visit to Dublin during St. Patrick’s Day is the ideal opportunity to seek out the Guinness Storehouse and enjoy a free pint of the black stuff in the Gravity Bar or visit one of the city’s many traditional Irish pubs for a great pint, fine food, and all the craic (Irish for fun) you could ask for.
If you’d like to explore the legacy of St. Patrick or feel the parade and other festivities simply aren’t for you, we also offer a tour which will allow you to follow in his footsteps through the beautiful countryside of Northern Ireland. We venture to County Down in Northern Ireland and visit Downpatrick – the spiritual heartland of Ireland and the location of Patrick’s grave. This medieval city is home to the very modern Saint Patrick Centre, an exciting interactive experience which explore the story of Ireland’s patron saint. During a spectacular 20 minute audio-visual presentation, you’ll be shown around Ireland on a 180-degree virtual helicopter ride courtesy of some mesmerising panoramic aerial photography.
Afterwards, we make the short trip to Down Cathedral, where an expert guide will explore the history of the building and its transformation from a humble early Christian monastery to one of Ireland’s most impressive churches. Outside, visit St. Patrick’s grave before travelling to the village of Saul, where he is believed to have died and the site of Ireland’s first ecclesiastical church in all of Ireland. This tour also visits the Grey Abbey, to give you a comprehensive overview of the sacred sites of this most holy location, and one of Patrick’s key conversion sites. It was here that the local lord Dichu, one of his first converts, came to follow Christianity and in return, gave the saint land in Saul so that he might continue his work.
Other tours take you to the Rock of Cashel, another key site dedicated to Patrick’s work of converting Ireland and one of the country’s most magnificent ruins. Closer to Dublin, we also organise tours to Glendalough and while the monastery here is associated with St. Kevin, not St. Patrick, it is one of the most impressive in the country and is set amongst beautiful lakes and mountains. The appeal of this location for the hermit St. Kevin and the followers who came after him will soon be apparent.
We also arrange special St. Patrick’s Day parades from London and elsewhere in Ireland to see the Emerald Isle at this special time and our regular tours don’t stop on March 17th. See the beauty of the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula, kiss the Blarney Stone and stand on top of the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, see beautiful Cong village or walk among the columns of the Giant’s Causeway – see the best of Ireland at the very best time of year to be in the Emerald Isle!