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I often write about the traditions, lore and celebrations in the Wheel of the Year and other special days and how important it is to create our own traditions whilst honouring the intent of our Celtic (or other) ancestors. But truth be told, although we may know some of the lore and traditions, we can never be totally sure of how our ancestors truly celebrated but we do have many sources for how they celebrated in the last few hundred years.

This week on March 17th marks the annual celebration of Saint Patrick, one of the three patron saints of Ireland — the others being Saint Brigid and Saint Columba — and perhaps the most well-known outside of Ireland.

I must confess to having a love/hate relationship with how this day is celebrated around the world. Much of it lately seems more related to brand marketing than honouring the saint or the Irish homeland: green beer, shamrock shakes, leprechaun jokes and hats. This year, I came across a recipe for leprechaun bait consisting of mostly sugary cereals, green candies and Lucky Charms! I can say with confidence that the bait would not attract a leprechaun!

In the diaspora following the genocide of the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s, many emigrés sought to express their faith and traditions in their new homeland, often by the annual celebration of Saint Patrick. Those celebrations — wearing of crosses or shamrock emblems, doffing the green, parades, breakfasts, etc — affirmed their connection to their homeland and their pride in their heritage and culture. And those celebrations have definitely morphed over time to what we see today.

My Grandma would have said these newer traditions were “not at all saintly!”, but perhaps they were actually rooted in older traditions.

How was the day celebrated in Ireland?

Kevin Danaher, in his wonderful book, The Year in Ireland tells us that there are only two customs that derived from older traditions, “the wearing of an emblem or symbol, and the ‘drowning of the shamrock’”. Those emblems included pins, green ribbons, shamrocks and “3-leaved grass” said to give one sweet breath. As far back as 1681, there also seemed to be some noted differences between how the rich and poor celebrated. Thomas Dinely, an English traveler to Ireland, noted that people of “all stations” wore crosses to celebrate the Saint whilst only “the vulgar” wore the shamrock, demanded their “Patrick’s groat” (coin) from their masters, going into town to celebrate, and rarely “found sober at the end of the night”.  (Danaher, p. 58)

The lack of sobriety on this day would seem to be in contradiction to Lenten traditions of the church (the forty days leading up to Easter, with fairly strict traditions against imbibing or indulging in any way). But the National Museum of Ireland shares this perspective:

"St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is honoured on the 17th March, a day on which all Lenten restrictions were temporarily lifted. Children made ‘St. Patrick’s crosses’ – badges of fabric and paper. They wore these crosses to Mass and then to local parades and festivities. Adults wore shamrock during the day as it was believed that St. Patrick used its three leaves to illustrate the Holy Trinity – the existence of three persons in one God. By evening the worn shamrock might be dipped in an alcoholic drink, called ‘St. Patrick’s Pot’, and a toast raised in honour of the saint."

So honouring the Saint with a toast does seem to be a tradition practised for at least the last 300 years or so!

Danaher also describes the crosses and how they were made, with distinctive styles for the genders. He notes that in the days leading up to Saint Patrick’s Day, girls and boys would prepare their crosses. The crosses for boys were drawn onto a 3” square of paper, with a rough Celtic cross design within a circle, with each section a different colour, typically worn on their cap like a military insignia. Girls fashioned a more intricate pattern, on cardboard or heavy paper, then wrapped with coloured ribbons, with a green rosette in the centre, then pinned on one’s shoulder.  And it was considered a breach of etiquette to wear the cross of the opposite sex. The header includes an image of both, although the boys cross on the right, does not show the colouring.

green ribbon Saint Patrick’s Day rosette

Danaher further notes that the wearing of the crosses by children has been replaced by newer ones such as wearing a harp-shaped badge, a simple green ribbon rosette (as pictured above), and older children and adults would wear the shamrock (or a white clover).

And as to the drinking, yes, it does seem to be a tradition, especially the imbibing the St Patrick’s Pot. In 1828, Amhlaioibh O’Súilleabháin (roughly pronounced Auliffe O’Sullivan) wrote,

“The seventeenth day, Monday. St Patrick’s Day. A fine dark calm day; people merry drinking their ‘St Patrick’s Pot’; a shamrock in every hat, low and tall, and a cross on every girl’s dress”. Two years later he wrote, "This is a specially blessed St. Patrick’s Day, for I do not see a single person, man, woman or boy, drunk, a thousand million thanks to God. This happened owing to the sermons of Father Thomas Doran, with the grace of God, through Jesus Christ.”

The Drowning of the Shamrock

The “drowning of the shamrock” tradition did carry on, and one did not need to drown along with it in the St Patrick’s Pot, also known as Pota Pádraig in Irish. At the end of the day, the shamrock worn throughout the day would be placed in the final glass of grog or punch. One’s health would be toasted, and after the drink would be removed from the glass and tossed over one’s left shoulder for good luck.

As to food choices on Saint Patrick’s Day, meats were typically not eaten during Lent, but it was believed that Saint Patrick offered a solution to that. Jocelin, a monk in the Abbey of Furness, wrote in the twelfth century that Patrick had renounced the eating of meat, and hid away any meats he had. He asked God to offer a pardon or sign for eating meat. An angel told him to plunge the hidden “flesh-meats” into water where, miraculously, they became fishes (which was allowed). So, as early as 1100 CE, many Irish served the “Fishes of Saint Patrick” on his day.  (Danaher, p. 65)

Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations now

However you choose to honour or celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, know that the old traditions may not be that different than the newer traditions. There was food. There were various emblems that we still use, such as shamrocks, crosses and even harps (although the latter may be on a pint of Guinness!). Maybe you might try some traditional Irish cooking on the day. Maybe you’ll have a sip of uisce beatha (Water of Life) or a glass of Guinness. Maybe you’ll wear the green and drown the shamrock. However you celebrate, enjoy the day in any way it calls to you. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

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