The English boy who became St Patrick certainly made his mark - on Ireland and across the world. On 17 March each year, St Patrick's Day is now a day of partying and parades the world over to celebrate the life of an extraordinary man who died on that date in the year 461. Here are just some of the traditions that have grown up around Ireland's most celebrated saint.
Think St Patrick's Day and you will be thinking shamrocks and a proliferation of green, everywhere. I had often wondered how the shamrock came to be the elevated symbol of Ireland. While looking into the traditions marking this special day, I discovered that it was St Patrick himself who, quite literally, plucked the humble shamrock out of obscurity.
Be it Irish folklore, legend, fact, or a mixture of all those things, this is how the story of St Patrick goes... Kidnapped from his home in England as a boy and sold into slavery in Ireland, he was put to work as a shepherd in the harshest conditions. It was his Christian faith which sustained him throughout his ordeal before he made his escape back to England. He was recaptured and returned to slavery in Ireland, before escaping again and, this time, using his freedom to travel throughout Europe studying Christianity. Patrick became a Bishop in the year 432 and, convinced by a dream that he should return to Ireland to spread Christianity and save the Irish people, he travelled back to the land of his servitude. Before it was safe for him to spread the word, however, Patrick knew he had to get the country's most powerful man on side, and that was The High King of Tara. During the conversation with the king to convince him of the good of his faith and religion, Patrick grasped a shamrock from the ground and demonstrated to the king that although it had but one stem, it had three leaf branches, in just the same way the Blessed Trinity could be three, but from one body. The king was convinced and gave Patrick and his followers permission to travel throughout Ireland, spreading the word of his faith to the flock. After a lifetime dedicated to growing Christianity, it is said Patrick died aged 76 on 17 March, 461. Nobody can be sure, but it is thought his resting place is in Downpatrick, in County Down.
Going green on parade
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the ruling British invaders forced the Catholic religion to go underground in Ireland. The teachings of Catholicism were forbidden and Catholic schools were closed. So secret 'hedge schools' were formed to keep the faith and culture alive. These classes were taken in hidden places, often outdoors and even under hedgerows, in the verdant countryside which characterises Ireland. No surprise then that green became the colour of choice, while the wearing of the shamrock became a symbol of defiance of the British, as well as an icon that united the suppressed Catholic population.
The famed parades are the heart and soul of the celebrations and it is, perhaps, due to generations of emigration that the parade tradition has been carried to so many countries around the world. Records suggest that the parades were first introduced to Ireland as far back as the 9th century. Today this saint's day is an international event. The first recorded St Patrick's Day parade outside Ireland was in New York in 1762 when Irish soldiers in the British Army chose to mark the day as their kinsmen back in Ireland would be doing. The years of the Irish famine - 1845 to 1849 - saw a million Irish nationals leave their home shores for places such as Boston, New York, Perth, Sydney and cities in New Zealand. Being so far from home, it must have been a great comfort to them to be able to celebrate their heritage and keep Ireland alive in their hearts with the traditional parades.
The parades are now held from Ireland to India. New York holds the biggest parade, with its 1.5-mile route being lined by three million spectators watching as many as 150,000 St Patrick's Day parade participants!
Before the partying starts, however, practising Christians will go to church on this Holy Day of Obligation, where the service will usually include the 'Blessing of the Shamrock'. It is also likely that, certainly in Ireland, the day will close with a corned beef and mashed potato supper, which is the traditional Irish dish of this special national day.
As synonymous with Ireland as the shamrock is the dark brew with the creamy top - Guinness! This famous Irish stout has been drunk on St Patrick's Day - and most other days of the year - in Ireland since 1759. According to the brewery's records, the first sip of 'the black stuff' on this day in New York dates back to 1817, while millions of pints of Ireland's national drink are now washed down during the celebrations across the world on 17 March every year. Although from the 1970s to the 1990s, St Patrick's Day was a dry day in Ireland, with the pubs being closed. The Irish Government changed the drinking laws in the nineties to help put Ireland on the tourist map and the party started.
The Guinness logo is the harp, another strong symbol associated with the Emerald Isle. The harp was the emblem of Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland in the 11th century. He is credited with establishing Irish unity and freedoms and so his harp emblem is a very fitting way for Guinness to identify its stout with the essence and spirit of Ireland. Irish-themed pubs are now a popular meeting place for people all over the world, with as many as 53 countries now having them... all serving Guinness!
Enjoy the craic!
The craic - pronounced 'crack' - is one of the best things about Ireland and being with the Irish people. It is an Irish term which simply means to have a bit of fun with your friends and family. In pubs all over Ireland you will find the locals gathering to share in a bit of witty banter - and they have the best sense of humour - and laughter, which is nearly always accompanied by some impromptu music.
Generally known to be a very creative nation, famed for its literary and musical sons and daughters, Ireland wouldn't be Ireland without its music. I have enjoyed the craic in pubs across Dublin many times and the music has always been an integral part of it. In cities, such as Dublin, professional bands will play their sets; likely to be followed by people just coming forward with instruments of their own and starting to play and sing. Every kind of instrument is brought out and people with amazing voices - and some not so amazing - will just stand up to sing a traditional Irish ballad. Even in the tiny shoreline pubs along the coast, the local people will bring their instruments along to lunch with them and three hours after walking in and drinking your first pint of Guinness, you will still be there, chatting, singing, dancing to the music. It is informal, it is iconic, it is the best fun and it is something you will always remember being part of.
The craic will be on hyper drive during St Patrick's Day and will go on long after the parades have left the streets. Party central is the Temple Bar area if you are in Ireland's fair city of Dublin. On the south bank of the River Liffey, Temple Bar's narrow cobbled streets will charm you, its trendy and relaxed bars, restaurants and boutiques will surprise you, and the squares that open up around its bars and pubs will spill over with music, laughter and dancing - the soundtrack of the craic. On St Patrick's Day, however, it will all be happening on another level, so Temple Bar is definitely the place to be if you are heading off to Dublin for the big day.
The elusive leprechaun
The leprechaun is an Irish fairy who is said to go around on St Patrick's Day, pinching people. What else can you expect from a fairy who looks more like a naughty old man, with his spikey ears, wild hair and a big red beard? Dressed in traditional Irish green, he also brandishes a large stick known as a shillelagh which he uses to frighten off anyone who tries to take his gold. This fairy goes looking for gold most days and it is believed he finds his pots of gold at the end of those rainbows.
His name comes from an 8th century word 'luchorpan', meaning 'little body', which would be right for a fellow who stands no more than two-foot tall. The leprechaun makes it his business never to be found so that you can't steal his gold away. If captured, he has to grant his captor three wishes in return for his release. There are so many stories from folklore about this mischievous and mysterious creature, but the tradition of giving children a bag of chocolate coins on St Patrick's Day comes from the leprechaun's legendary love of riches.
The beauty of the Emerald Isle
Although St Patrick's Day brings the country to life in a very special way, Ireland is simply one of the most beautiful countries and is a wonderful retreat year round. Its lush green countryside areas are just as welcoming as its cities and towns, and they enjoy the craic just as much in the tiny villages, just on a different, slower and more intimate scale.
When I visited Dublin, I was impressed by just how quickly I could get out to some quiet and pretty little coastal villages on the train. From Skerries to Dalkey in the south, Dublin Bay is peppered with villages, secret beaches and still shores, and breathtaking landscapes. Quirky shops, tiny pubs, fresh seafood, music, castles, history and a warm welcome await you if you hop on a train for a day's adventure.
Over on the west side, the rugged Atlantic coastline of County Clare is your adventure playground. Limestone cliffs, heady walks and millions of wild flowers characterise this national park that sits in the middle of the 'Wild Atlantic Way'. The Cliffs of Moher and Galway are spectacular natural monuments of this ancient land and are a day-trip destination from Dublin, with many organised tours taking the strain out of getting there. It's not just about the incredible landscape; this is a land with a colourful history, much of it brought to life by its castles, museums and many landmarks. You don't have to wait until St Patrick's Day to enjoy the craic in Ireland.
Click on the button below to see where you might be travelling to in Ireland - as well as the world over. You can celebrate St Patrick's Day in so many countries across the globe, so start your holiday planning by clicking on the button below.
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