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A wee short journey to paddywhackery


March 17 is again upon us. The holiday that falls on this day marks the death of Saint Patrick in the fifth century and lands itself fairly in the middle of the Lenten season.

To be brief, Lent is a Christian observation lasting 40 days. those 40 days are a period to be observed through prayer, penance, self-denial and repentence.1

All that (including restrictions on meat and alcohol) gets lifted for St. Patrick’s Day, also known as the Feast of St. Patrick. To me, this helps shine a light on why the holiday has become the, let’s say exuberant, celebration we have come to know.

The Irish have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day for more than a thousand years now.2 The historically typical St. Patrick’s Day started at church and ended in drinking, dancing and feasting (usually on a traditional meal of corned beef or Irish bacon and cabbage).

“You’ve got to do

your own growing,

no matter how tall

your grandfather was.”

—Old Irish proverb

Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the fourth century to a well-propertied Christian family with lots of slaves as servants. Patrick’s father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest in the Christian church. Patrick himself, however, expressed no interest in Christianity as a youth.3

At age 16, Patrick was kidnapped by raiders and taken to Ireland as as slave to tend sheep. During his six years of captivity, Patrick turned to Christianity for solace and became a devoted believer.

Lore has it that by-and-by God told Patrick to escape and return to Britain. In answer to the voice, he boarded a pirate ship and was eventually reunited with his family. During his time back in Britain, Patrick studied and was ordained as a priest. Not long after being ordained, Patrick once more heard the voice—which this time told him to go back to Ireland. Again, Patrick followed the command and spent the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity.

During this time Patrick was reprimanded by British superiors and, because his position as a foreigner gave him no legal protection or ties of kinship and affinity, he was hounded by Irish royalty, beaten by ruffians, robbed and, at least once, clapped in irons.

“Beware the anger

of a patient man.”

—Old Irish proverb

Myths about St. Patrick abound. It has been said he chased all the snakes out of Ireland. Since there have been no snakes in post glacial Ireland, this is an obvious fiction.

Credit has been given to St. Patrick for illustrating the Holy Trinity through the use of the shamrock. This may be true as St. Patrick tried to incorporate Irish culture into his teachings.4 Pre-Christians viewed the shamrock as a symbol of rebirth and eternal life. At least partly because of his illustrative use of the shamrock, the color green has come to be associated with St. Patrick and, by extension, his day.

The Celtic cross is also attributed to St. Patrick. The sun was a powerful symbol to Irish pagans, so St. Patrick superimposed the sun onto the cross so veneration of the device would seem more natural.

“May those that love us, love us.

And those that don’t love us,

May God turn their hearts.

And if he doesn’t turn their hearts,

May he turn their ankles.

So we’ll know them by their limping!”

—Old Irish toast

Other interesting St. Patrick’s tidbits:

• The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held, not in Ireland as you might expect, but in America. On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English army paid homage to their heritage by marching through New York City.5

• 5.5 million pints of Guiness beer (dark Irish stout) are consumed worldwide daily. On St. Patrick’s Day, that number swells to 13 million pints.3

• During 1845’s Great Potato Famine, nearly a million poor, uneducated Irish Catholics made their way to America to escape starvation. Due to their alien beliefs and strange accents, these migrants were shunned by American Protestants. When they took to the streets on St. Patrick’s Day to honor their traditions, these new Americans were depicted in newspapers of the time as drunken, violent monkeys.2

• The shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade happens in Dripsey, Ireland. This “parade” goes just 100 yards—going the distance between the town’s two pubs.6

• In 1848, New York Irish aid societies decide to combine all the city’s various parades into one official parade. The resultant St. Patrick’s Day parade is now the world’s oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States.

“May the roof above you never fall in,

And those gathered beneath it never fall out.”

—Old Irish wedding toast

Most folks will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the now customary paddywhackery7, a term coined to describe stereotypical and exaggerated “Irish” attributes, characters and customs, and let venerating St. Patrick escape them altogether.

While St. Patrick should be remembered, I think the reason most folks like to be “honorary Irish” on St. Patrick’s Day is that it has become, for them, a “fun” holiday. The phrase “Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day” has become fairly cliché. The truth is that anyone who feels the day should be “Irish only” would do well to remember St. Patrick himself was not born Irish, but chose (or was told by God) to become Irish.

Myself, I have been seen running around town in a kilt on St. Patrick’s day as I use the day to celebrate general Celtic-ness and engage in my own version of paddywhackery.

Whatever you choose to do with the holiday, from piously attending church to dressing like a leprechaun and having a green beer (or several), I wish you a fine, soft day.

1. Wikipedia: “Lent”,

2. “St. Patrick’s Day”,

3. National Geographic: “St. Patrick’s Day 2011: Facts, Myths, and Traditions”,

4. “Who Was St. Patrick?”,

5. “St. Patrick’s Day Facts”,

6. Wikipedia: “Saint Patrick’s Day”,’s_Day

7. The Washington Post-Style Blog: “St. Patrick’s Day: Everyone is Irish, for better or for worse”,


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