A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day
and Flags Associated with St. Patrick’s Day
A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day
Saint Patrick’s Day is also known as the Feast of Saint Patrick in Ireland. It is a cultural and religious holiday celebrated on March 17th. It commemorates Saint Patrick, the arrival of Christianity in Ireland as well as Irish heritage in general.
Saint Patrick (c. AD 385–461), is one of the most commonly recognized patron saints of Ireland. St. Patrick was born in Britain in the late 4th century. (His parents are believed to have been Italians from Rome.) He was kidnapped at the age of 16 and taken to Ireland as a slave. He escaped but returned about 432 to convert the Irish to Christianity. By the time of his death on March 17, 461, he had established monasteries, churches, and schools. Many legends are associated with him —for example, that he drove the snakes out of Ireland and used the shamrock to explain the Trinity.
Saint Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day for Ireland in the early seventeenth century. It was emigrants to the United States who transformed St. Patrick’s Day into a largely secular holiday of revelry and celebration of all things Irish. Boston held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, followed by New York City in 1762. Since 1962 Chicago has colored its river green to mark the holiday.
Irish and non-Irish alike commonly participate in the “wearing of the green”—sporting an item of green clothing or a shamrock. Corned beef and cabbage are associated with the holiday, and even beer is sometimes dyed green to celebrate the day. Celebrations generally involve public parades and festivals. In Ireland, Christians attend church services, and the Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol are lifted for the day (some speculate that this encouraged the holiday’s tradition of alcohol consumption).
Flags associated with St. Patrick’s Day include:
St. Patrick’s Cross Flag
Although the origin of this flag is unclear, it is generally thought to have originated in the coat of arms of the Anglo-Irish family of Fitzgerald. Adopted in 1783 by the Order of St. Patrick. When the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland came into existence on January 1, 1801, the Cross of St. Patrick was chosen to represent Ireland in the flag of the United Kingdom. (Note: A cross presented on the diagonal, such as the Cross of St. Patrick is actually referred to a saltire by vexillologists.)
The tri-color flag of Ireland was first used in the revolutionary year of 1848, but with the tri-colors in reverse order. This flag was recognized in 1922 and formally adopted in 1937. Some reports indicate that it was based on the flag of France. The green represents the country’s Roman Catholics; orange represents the Protestants (originally supporters of William of Orange); and white represents a hope for peace, trust and unity between both parts of the population.
This flag is sometimes called the Irish-American Flag. In Gaelic, the ancient language of Ireland, “Erin Go Bragh” is a well-known phrase that means “Ireland Forever”. This flag is based on the flags of the 1798 rebellion. Versions of this flag were carried by Irish-American regiments in the Civil War.
These “Specialty Fun Flags” contains several symbols that have come to represent St. Patrick’s Day. These may include “The Shamrock” which was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland because it symbolized the rebirth of spring. By the seventeenth century, the shamrock had become a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism. As the English began to seize Irish land and make laws against the use of the Irish language and the practice of Catholicism, many Irish began to wear the shamrock as a symbol of their pride in their heritage and their displeasure with English rule.
These flags may also show a Leprechaun hat and pipe. Belief in leprechauns, meaning “small-bodied fellows” probably stems from Celtic belief in fairies, tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. In Celtic folktales, leprechauns were cranky souls, responsible for mending the shoes of the other fairies. Leprechauns were known for their trickery, which they often used to protect their much-fabled treasure.
- Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite, 2012
- The World Encyclopedia of Flags, 1999
- Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia