20+ Fascinating St. Patrick’s Day Facts You Probably Didn’t Know
The day we associate with drinking massive amounts of beer actually started as a religious holiday and—spoiler alert—St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish!
St. Patrick wasn’t Irish
Although Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, he was actually born in Roman-occupied Britain in the fourth century to wealthy parents who might have converted to the Christian faith for the tax break.
He didn’t go to Ireland by choice
The young Patrick was kidnapped and sold into slavery by Irish raiders who robbed his family home when he was only 16 years old. Most historians think the young Patrick was enslaved in County Mayo near Killala where he would have done the solitary work of tending to sheep. It was here, in forced exile, that he reclaimed the Christian faith he was born into.
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St. Patrick did not chase snakes out of Ireland
St. Patrick did convert many pagans to Christianity, but the story of his driving all the snakes out of Ireland during his 40-day fast on a hilltop is bunk. Biologists think the reason Ireland is snake-free today is that the reptiles never migrated to the island in the first place. The legend of the snakes is probably just a metaphor for St. Patrick’s having driven evil out of Ireland.
Find out more lessons your history teacher lied to you about.
St. Patrick invented the Celtic cross
Many Irish still practiced a nature-based religion and he used the symbols of their traditional faith, like the sun that he overlaid on the cross, to teach them about their new Christian one. He also used the symbol of fire to start the practice of celebrating Easter with bonfires.
St. Patrick is not an official saint
St. Patrick’s Day falls on the anniversary of Patrick’s death on March 17 in the fifth century. His followers in Ireland began to celebrate his feast day on that day during the ninth and 10th centuries, even though he was never formally canonized by a pope.
You used to celebrate the day in church
Since St. Patrick’s Day historically falls during the Christian holy month of Lent, people would go to morning mass before afternoon and evening festivities. And, because many Christians fast from red meat and sometimes alcohol, Christian leaders still give special dispensation to enjoy corned beef and Guinness just for the day.
The original colour for St. Patrick’s Day was blue
St. Patrick is actually associated with the colour blue, and his priestly vestments are painted that hue in many portraits of him. But after the Order of St. Patrick chose green as their official colour, people celebrate by “the wearing of the green.” Find out more fun facts about colour.
The first parade wasn’t in America
Boston and New York both claim to have hosted the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the 1700s (though they quibble over the definition of a parade). That said, the first procession honouring the Irish saint may have taken place in 1601 when residents of the Spanish-speaking settlement of St. Augustine, Florida, marched through the streets in recognition of St. Patrick—or San Patricio, in this case—whom they considered the official protector of their fields of maize.
New York City’s parade is the oldest in America
Started in 1848 by Irish Aid societies that helped Irish immigrant families in the city, the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade is now the largest parade in the United States, wrapping its way around 2.5 kilometres of the city. It’s joined by parades in other American cities including Chicago and Boston.
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The parade has a political history
Prejudice against Irish Catholics was rampant in the United States since they emigrated to the country after the Potato Famine in 1845. They used the parades to show their solidarity and call for social change. When President Harry S. Truman marched in the New York City parade in 1948, Irish Americans had finally arrived.
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated all around the world
Although historically celebrated in countries with larger Irish immigrant communities including the United States, Canada and Australia, St. Patrick’s Day is now celebrated in countries as far-flung as Japan, Singapore, and Russia.
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You used to not be allowed to buy beer on St. Patrick’s Day
St. Patrick’s Day used to be a solemn commemoration of the day he died. In 1927, Irish officials even banned the sale of alcohol on his name day (as well as on Christmas and Good Friday), partly at the insistence of the Catholic Church. Until the early 1960s, one of the only places you could buy a beer in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day was the well-attended Royal Dublin Dog Show. Commercial pressure led to the lifting of the ban in 1960.
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Now it’s one of the booziest holidays
March 17 ranks fourth on the list of booziest holidays in America, behind New Year’s Eve, Christmas, and the Fourth of July. The drink of choice around the world: Guinness. In 2019, revellers are expected to down 13 million pints of it.
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Chicago goes all green
In 1962, the Chicago Plumbers Union Local 130 realized that the dye they used to locate leaks in buildings could double as an eco-friendly decoration. The Windy City has been dyeing the Chicago River green for the holiday ever since. The 40 pounds of dye can linger in the water for up to a few days, depending on the wind.
Don’t miss our roundup of the best things to do in Chicago.
The famous Shamrock Shake
Slightly less popular but with its own rabid fan base: McDonald’s Shamrock Shake. The restaurant chain created a “McDonald’s Finder” app last year to help customers track down the minty green confection—and it is a confection. A large Shamrock contains 800 calories and 113 grams of sugar.
Can you guess which countries have banned McDonald’s?
The first parade in Belfast was big
More than 10,000 Catholics took to the streets of Belfast in 1998 to hold the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the long-divided Northern Ireland city. In hope of encouraging Protestant involvement, the parade organizer told the fife-and-drum bands not to play any anti-British music.
Pork was the original meal for this holiday
Corned beef and cabbage is the quintessential St. Patrick’s meal, right? Actually, in pre-famine Ireland, beef was a rare delicacy—the commoners typically ate pork. But when Irish immigrants came to the United States, they reportedly noticed their Jewish neighbours and fellow immigrants buying brisket from kosher butchers and followed suit. The Jews even slow-cooked their Passover meal with potatoes. (The Irish threw in the cabbage.)
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Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were married on St. Patrick’s Day in 1905, in New York City
They picked that day because Eleanor’s uncle was giving away the bride and he couldn’t miss the big parade. Uncle Teddy was President Theodore Roosevelt. “He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening,” his daughter Alice Roosevelt said.
Fun fact: Would you believe Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady to race down an Olympic bobsled course?
The festivities reach the highest echelons
Ireland’s prime minister gives the U.S. president an Irish cut-glass bowl filled with shamrocks, the three-leafed sprig that is one of the state’s emblems. The tradition dates back to 1952, when the first Irish ambassador to America, John Joseph Hearne, reportedly dropped off a box of shamrocks for Harry Truman (who was out of town).
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It wasn’t until 1995 that the Irish changed their tune
Since the holiday fell on the Christian holy month of Lent, pubs were closed on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland until the 1970s. In the mid-’90s, the Irish government began to use St. Patrick’s Day as a way to improve the economy through tourism. Since then, millions of people celebrate the St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin. Now that you’re familiar with these fascinating St. Patrick’s Day facts, get to know the best things to do in Ireland off the beaten path.