The story of St. Patrick's Day begins around 385 AD with a man named Maewyn. At age 16, the Pagan Maewyn was sold into slavery, which brought him closer to God. He finally managed to escape slavery six years later and headed to a monastery in Gaul to study, where he adopted the Christian name "Patrick."
Upon ending his studies, he moved to Ireland, where he felt his calling in life was to convert Pagans to Christianity. For the next 30 years, he traveled throughout the country, setting up monasteries and converting the natives. After his death in 461 (on March 17th, when else did you expect?), he was declared a saint.
So what happened from there? How did a man who spent his entire life converting Pagans to Christianity result in a day devoted to rowdy songs, parades, and drinking green beer, a day when everyone is just a wee bit Irish?
The first St. Patrick's Day Parade was in America, not Ireland. It took place in New York City in 1762, and consisted of Irish soldiers in the English military marching through the city. This was a chance for the soldiers to reconnect with their heritage. Eventually, as more Irish immigrants came to America, the parades were a show of strength for Irish-Americans and political candidates had to make an appearance at them. Now a regular annual event, people of all backgrounds celebrate this day.
Ireland, on the other hand, does not have such a long history of St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Prior to the 1970s, it was a religious occasion and, indeed, Irish law mandated that pubs be closed on March 17! Apparently, there was no green beer for those in Ireland.
This changed around 1995, when the government made a push to use St. Patrick's Day as a way to drive tourism and to showcase Ireland to the rest of the world. Parades and celebrations are now common in Ireland around this day (in fact, their celebrations last several days) and some one million people took part in last year's festivities in Dublin.
When people nowadays think of this day, they get an image of the shamrock in their head. You see it on the sides of buildings, on hats and clothing, on balloons and decorations. Why? Its origins are rooted in Patrick himself. He used the shamrock as a way to show how the trinity works: three separate elements of the same entity.
So wherever you are, whether you're Irish or not, get out there and enjoy the day!
If you would like more information on the holiday, the History Channel will be showing The History of St. Patrick's Day on March 17 and 7pm/6 central.
Michelle Osborne is a native to the central New York region, plays both high and low whistles regularly with the Syracuse Irish session. Besides being heavily involved in Irish traditional music, she is also a classical clarinetist and composer. Subscribe to Celtic Music Magazine to get 34 Celtic MP3s for FREE!