Ready to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day like a real Irish person would? Then start your day off by going to church. The Irish have been celebrating St. Patrick’s feast day since the ninth century. It’s not only a national holiday, but also a holy day of obligation for practicing Catholics, who often pin shamrocks to their Sunday best and head to mass.
While modern day Ireland celebrates St. Patrick’s Day in many of the same ways as in the United States — with profuse drinking, green attire, and parades — those traditions are largely imported.
Up until the 1970s, Irish law prevented pubs from opening on March 17. The day was a relatively somber holiday, celebrating the patron saint of Ireland and the arrival of Christianity to the formerly pagan country. St. Patrick, who was actually a British missionary, is credited with spreading Christianity to Ireland, and March 17 is the day of his death.
Though the holiday takes place during Lent, a Catholic period of temperance and fasting, the church historically lifted the drinking ban for this celebration, a provision that has morphed into the modern tradition of unfettered alcohol consumption.
It wasn’t until 1995 that the Irish government began sponsoring St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Dublin to encourage tourism. Now, the Irish celebration looks very much like it does in the rest of the world, with a multi-day festival in Dublin featuring plays, concerts, art, and the main attraction — a huge parade that draws over 100,000 visitors to the city. Various parades and celebrations also take place in other parts of the country.
The traditional wearing of shamrocks, which were supposedly used by St. Patrick in his missionary work to explain the holy trinity, has morphed into the wearing of anything and everything green, and the streets of Dublin reflect this during the festivities.
Though Irish Families traditionally had dinner together after mass, it is now common to see people out celebrating at pubs and parties after the parades, wearing green hats, with shamrocks painted on their faces, and of course, drinking. The streets of Dublin may be full of tourists until the pubs close, but most locals prefer to center their socialization around music or storytelling and end up leaving the city center in favor of a quieter pub or event in their neighborhood.
And the pinching tradition common in the U.S.? That’s definitely not the norm in Ireland. It turns out, the raucous parties and debauchery that we’ve come to expect on St. Patrick’s day stem from congregations of Irish immigrants celebrating their heritage in cities far from home, and only recently have these traditions made their way back to Ireland. See what else you may have never known about St. Patrick’s Day.