How Did Saint Patrick's Day Develop

Figure 1. Depiction of Saint Patrick.

Saint Patrick's day is celebrate as an important Catholic feast day in Ireland. It also has important religious significance in other places that recognize the importance of Saint Patrick in bringing Christianity to Ireland. While the story of Saint Patrick does relate to the bringing of Christianity to Ireland, many of the stories and celebrations have other influences and reasons that have shaped the celebratory day.

Early Development

Saint Patrick's day only became a recognized feast day in the early 17th century. However, it's development and traditions took various forms of influence. Outside of knowledge of Saint Patrick as being perhaps the most important person in bringing Christianity to Ireland, little else is known. He may have been a British-Roman missionary who migrated from Britain in the 5th century CE, perhaps in the 430s when Rome's grip on Britain had faded. The work, Declaration , dated to this period, may have been written by him and provides the most detail on his life. It is not even clear if, however, Patrick was his name, as other possibilities have been suggested such as Magnus. There is also the tradition of Palladius being the first bishop of Ireland, recorded to be around 431. He may have been a figure conflated with Patrick in later traditions, where Palladius and Patrick were combined into one figure (Figure 1).[1]

Tradition holds he was taken captive as a teenager by Irish pirates from his native Britain. He eventually escaped but after some time he saw a vision and came back to Ireland to be a missionary. When he came back, he became active in baptizing and spreading Christianity. Interestingly, an early 7th century letter written by Columbanus, an Irish missionary, states that Christianity came to Ireland via Palladius. Works by Tírechán, writing later in the 7th century, then begin to attribute Christianity brought to Ireland via Patrick. The writer refers to Book of Ultán, which could be a missing or lost source regarding Patrick, as this work no longer survives. Many of the conversion stories mimic other conversion stories found in the late Roman Empire, suggesting that many of the stories were borrowed and attributed to Patrick or even that the stories were combined in relation to Patrick. It may have not been until the 7th century, long after Patrick, that churches and monasteries began to spread across Ireland.[2]

The main tradition that continues to have connection to Saint Patrick is the use of the shamrock to teach about the Holy Trinity. However, that tradition was only written down in the 1700s, far later than any of the early Medieval writings about Saint Patrick. Nevertheless, the story could be much older and may reflect at least Medieval beliefs. Other stories, such as snakes being banished from Ireland by Patrick, reflect the fact that there have not been snakes in Ireland since the last ice age. The selection of March 17th as Saint Patrick's day relates to the purported date of Patrick's death, but there is no certainty of that from sources.[3]

Later Development

Figure 2. Saint Patrick's day celebrations in 1874 in New York.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, Saint Patrick's day was being celebrated widely throughout Ireland. By the Medieval period, Patrick became the undisputed Patron Saint of Ireland. By the 17th century, green had increasingly been associated with Ireland. As the color became associated with the country and people, naturally Saint Patrick, the patron saint, began to also be associated with this color, leading to this color being the primary color worn on the feast day. In the 17th century, Luke Wadding, an important Franciscan friar from Ireland, placed Saint Patrick as part of the official important feast days in the Catholic calendar. The Vatican recognized Saint Patrick's day in 1631 as a feast day.[4]

Even after the conversion to Protestantism and migration of English to Ireland in the 1600s, the Anglican calendar has retained Saint Patrick as part of their celebrations. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Saint Patrick's day began to take a nationalistic characteristic against Protestant and British forces in Ireland. In 1903, Saint Patrick's day in Ireland held its first parade in Waterford, which was the home of the bishop who had created Saint Patrick's day as an official feast day. In 1916, large-scale Saint Patrick's day marches and parades were held in Ireland, where the anti-British occupation Irish Volunteers sponsored these marches and parades. Some accounts suggest many or even most of the participants may have been armed, signifying the troubled period during British occupation throughout Ireland. With the partition of Ireland after the creation of the Irish Free State, celebrations in Northern Ireland began to reflect Protestant and Catholic divisions. The Unionists of Northern Ireland, although recognizing Saint Patrick's day as a holiday, did not hold any official celebrations, while the Catholics used the day as a way to protest against the Unionists.[5]

In the United States, widespread migration in the mid-19th century led to celebrations of Saint Patrick's day. However, it has been claimed that already by 1762 celebrations of Saint Patrick's day, and even the first official parade, had taken place in New York. By the late 18th and early 19th century, Irish migrants had begun to also hold neighborhood celebrations as a way to remember their cultural identity. In the mid-19th century, celebrations and parades were held in places such as New York, Boston, and other places mostly in the eastern United States (Figure 2). US traditions, in may respects, in the 20th century influence the global spread and influence of Saint Patrick's day.[6]

Modern Meaning

For many countries and places, Saint Patrick's day is a good excuse for a party. However, in Ireland, traditions in the past meant the celebrations were usually somber. No alcohol was even allowed to be sold on the day in Ireland until that law was repealed in the 1960s. The day involved mass in the morning and then a military parade followed, reflecting the influence of the conflicts between the Unionist and nationalist elements from the early 20th century.[7]

It was in the 1960s that people began to adopt the US version of celebrations, with the day often being associated with heavy drinking and parades. In the US, the celebratory tradition has since the 18th century been more a reflection of national and social identity. Rather than a somber day, it became more celebratory in Ireland as well in the 1960s. Although Irish Catholics often did face discrimination throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, their celebrations were generally more jovial, as the little outward conflict was evident, unlike in Ireland.

Some in the US began to use Saint Patrick's day celebrations as a way to reinforce stereotypes, such as drunken behavior among Irish Catholics. However, the positive jovial spirit also became attractive to those who were neither Irish nor even Catholic. In the 1960s, as the Republic of Ireland moved beyond periods of conflict, Saint Patrick's day was seen more a reflection of national identity. US-style marketing, such as all things green, including beer and milkshakes, has also spread since the 1960s. In the US, the day became associated with everyone having an excuse for being Irish for a day at least.

Thus, more similar to Halloween, celebrations in the United States of the holiday did not reflect national or cultural identity as much over time, as many people joined celebrations, and it became a more collective celebration. The US-style celebrations spread in many parts of the world, where Saint Patrick's day is not (unofficially at least) often celebrated. Today, Saint Patrick's day parades can be found in such places as Japan, Korea, Turkey, and various parts of Europe. In the UK, Saint Patrick's day remained muted until the 1990s, mostly because of the Troubles and associated bombings that occurred. It was after the Good Friday agreement in 1998 that celebrations in the UK began to be more similar to the United States.[8]


Our knowledge of the original Saint Patrick is still obscure. Traditions attributed to him were often written much later. Celebrations of Saint Patrick's day did have a nationalistic characteristic already in the Medieval period. However, the more nationalistic celebration in Ireland began to be different from the more jovial celebrations in the United States. It was only in the 20th century that the association of parades and heavy drinking in Saint Patrick's day developed, mostly as an American tradition that others adopted, including in Ireland.


  1. For more on the early traditions and stories of Saint Patrick, see: Dumville, D. N., & Abrams, L. (1993). Saint Patrick, A. D. 493 - 1993. Woodbridge: Boydell.
  2. For more on the early Medieval developments and writings, see: Freeman, P. (2006). St. Patrick of Ireland: a biography (1. Simon & Schuster paperback ed). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
  3. For more on Saint Patrick's Day traditions, see: Cronin, M., & Adair, D. (2002). The wearing of the green: a history of St. Patrick’s Day. London ; New York: Routledge, pg. 22.
  4. For more on the development of Saint Patrick as the Patron Saint of Ireland, see: Duffy, S., MacShamhráin, A., & Moynes, J. (Eds.). (2005). Medieval Ireland: an encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, pg. 66.
  5. For more on the tradition of the Saint Patrick's parade and celebrations, see: Barth, E. (1977). Shamrocks, harps, and shillelaghs: the story of the St. Patrick’s Day symbols. New York: Clarion Books.
  6. For more on Irish-American traditions, see: Dolan, J. P. (2008). The Irish Americans: a history (1st U.S. ed). New York: Bloomsbury Press.
  7. For more on the history of Ireland in the 20th century and Saint Patrick's day, see: Skinner, J., & Bryan, D. (2015). Consuming St. Patrick’s Day. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  8. For more on the recent spread of Saint Patrick's day celebrations, see: Inglis, T. (2008). Global Ireland: same difference. New York, N.Y. ; London: Routledge.