Saint days and shamrocks: the history behind St. Patrick’s Day

Pub crawls and shamrocks define the holiday known as St. Patrick’s Day, when beer flows like water and the Chicago River runs green. But the celebration has deep roots in Ireland’s millennia-old Catholic community, and has come to represent the island on the international stage.

According to Fr. Jeffery Lucas, Catholic campus minister, St. Patrick was a fifth-century saint known for spreading Catholicism to Ireland. Born in England, he was captured by Celtic pirates from Ireland and sent to work on the west coast of the island. After escaping his captors, he returned to England and was ordained a priest. St. Patrick then sailed back to Ireland and began preaching.

“Because of his work, because of the foundation he gave to the Catholic Church in Ireland, because of the role of Catholicism in Irish culture, he is the patron saint of Ireland,” Lucas said. “To that extent, he’s very much celebrated and very much in the consciousness of the Irish people.”

A Roman Catholic saint or feast day is a day celebrating one or more saints recognized by the Catholic Church. There are more than ten thousand recognized saints, each with their own feast day.

“We have a whole calendar of saints, and various saint’s are assigned ‘patronages’ for different places, different occupations, different things, depending on what they’re associated with,” said Deacon Ed Horneman, advisor of Allegheny’s Newman Catholic Campus Ministry. “St. Patrick’s celebration is not, as a feast day in the church, unusual, because we have many feast days in that respect.”

Feast days are days of remembrance for Catholics, where they celebrate the life of the given saint. but often hold a deeper meaning for the occupations and regions that hold the given saint as a patron.

“In the liturgical life of the church proper, it’s a memorial of a saint,” Lucas said. “We remember him and his contribution to the Catholic faith in Ireland, as well as the character of his life, a man very dedicated to the works of bringing the Gospel to people’s lives and living an exemplary Christian life, one who, with God now, is praying for the church. To that extent, it’s similar to most other saint’s feast days, but if one is of an Irish background, then there’s going to be a lot of local traditions and customs that surround the celebration of that feast day.”

A good example of such a local custom lies within the Diocese of Erie, which covers 13 counties, including Crawford.

“In the Diocese of Erie, St. Patrick is the patron saint of the diocese,” Horneman said. “In that respect, if St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday, then the bishop normally gives a dispensation to allow us to eat meat on Friday.”

This dispensation is because St. Patrick’s Day always falls during Lent, and Catholics are forbidden from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.

In other locales, however, St. Patrick’s Day’s significance is removed from its religious origins. In Russia, for example, the holiday serves as a strong cultural connection to the West.

“Some of the first Western businesses that opened up in the early ‘90s were things like Irish pubs,” said Kenneth Pinnow, professor of History and Global Health. “There was an Irish pub that we used to go to where they literally imported all the pieces to the pub and then rebuilt it there.”

According to Pinnow, the cultural side of the holiday is much stronger in Russia. The annual celebration of Irish culture is seen as uncomplicated and non-disruptive.

“It’s partly about recognizing Irish culture and promoting ties between two peoples, then tied in with the commercial side,” Pinnow said. “I think some people just see it as a chance to celebrate and have fun without it being too overly political. It’s not a holiday that’s fraught with a lot of historical meaning there, and I think that given everything the country has been through some people just like having a chance to get out there.”

However, there is a revival of the religious side of the holiday as well. A few years ago, the Russian Orthodox Church — of which the vast majority of Russians adhere to — formally honored the previously-Catholic-only saint.

“In 2017, the Russian Orthodox church recognized St. Patrick,” Pinnow said. “So there is now an official church holiday for St. Patrick which occurs two weeks later because of the differences in calendar. The Orthodox church still follows the older Julian calendar. So there’s a disconnect between the broad public celebrations on March 17, and then the Russian Orthodox Church recognizes St. Patrick’s a few weeks later.”

As the March 17 cultural celebrations commemorate the connections between Russia and the West, so too is the Russian Orthodox Church’s decision to admit St. Patrick as a saint — a move designed to strengthen ties with the Catholic Church.

“My understanding there is that that was part of a broader effort to suggest the longstanding connections, historically, between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church,” Pinnow said. “So what they did is they went back and looked at a variety of saints that were recognized by the Catholic Church and identified a number of them that they brought back into the Russian Orthodox group of saints. These were saints that were recognized before the Schism of 1054 and are apparently recognized by other branches of the Orthodox Church.”

The Schism of 1054 was the event that originally split Christianity into two distinct churches: the western Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox. It was caused by years of theological and liturgical disputes, and culminated in each church excommunicating the entirety of the other.

The Russian experience of a split between the cultural and religious holiday is markedly different from  where the cultural aspect actually originated.

“At the time (of St. Patrick), Christian faith and culture were very much fused,” Lucas said. “It was the spiritual landscape of the whole people. The Irish people see him as a patron, they see what he did as the foundation of the Catholic life that they all shared up until the Reformation.”

So much of Irish culture is tied to the Catholic faith, which St. Patrick is largely credited for bringing to the island. The line between faith and culture, which is so clear in Russia, is much blurrier for the Irish

“At the time (of St. Patrick), Christian faith and culture were very much fused,” Lucas said. “It was the spiritual landscape of the whole people. The Irish people see him as a patron, they see what he did as the foundation of the Catholic life that they all shared up until the Reformation.”

Symbols that one considers deeply Irish are also symbols intricately tied to St. Patrick. Take, for example, the ubiquitous shamrock or three-leaf-clover.

“St. Patrick used that as a symbol for the Trinity,” Lucas said. “A story arose that when he was evangelizing the people of Ireland, he used the clover as an image and a visual aid to teach about the Trinity.”

Even the green of Ireland, the primary color of the holiday, is how St. Patrick is typically represented.

“Ireland is called the Emerald Isle,” Lucas said. “It’s very beautiful and green, and you’ll see in many stained-glass windows St. Patrick is shown in green vestments holding up a shamrock. That leads into water fountains (being) dyed green, the Chicago River’s dyed green, beer is dyed green. There’s kind of a confluence of those particular themes.”

However, not all Irish symbols are synonymous with St. Patrick. The leprechaun, a creature so deeply tied to Ireland that it serves as the mascot for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, represents the pre-Christian religions of the island.

“That’s something that St. Patrick would probably have fought against as a more pagan or naturalistic belief at the time,” Horneman said.

Lucas attributes the strong connection between Irish culture and St. Patrick to the former’s nature as an island.

“It’s very clear in Ireland because it’s a smaller area and St. Patrick is such a monumental figure,” Lucas said.