03/15/2013 11:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

So What Is This "St.Patrick's Day" Nonsense All About Anyway?

This post originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Domhnall O'Huigin,

I've been in a couple of discussions of late around the dangers of assuming that what is second nature to you is understood by everyone or that something well known in your milieu is universally so. With that in mind, I thought to provide a primer on St. Patrick's Day for the 98.8571428571% of humanity that don't have some Irish in them, and give an insider's view for those who do.

St. Patrick [1] is a Christian Saint [2], and the patron Saint of the Republic of Ireland [3]. Besides playing in the premier league of Catholicism, he is famous for [allegedly] converting the Irish to Christianity and driving the snakes (read: pagans) out of Ireland [4].

I find this idea incredibly amusing: firstly - and most people (including many Irish) do not know this - while we do have lizards, slow worms, and other reptiles [5] in Ireland - we don't seem to have ever had snakes. Secondly, I find the assertion that we are, in fact, anything other than notionally Christian, suspect in the extreme. The Irish are perhaps the Poster Children for the missionary tactic of taking local, pagan festivals and rituals, renaming them in honor of some Saint or other, and declaring them 'Christian.' Ever wonder why "Halloween" is such a big deal (outside of modern marketing efforts)? Or Mayday? Or even Christmas? Yep. All hugely important pagan occasions repackaged as Christian [6].

But I digress. So St.Patrick is the patron Saint and protector of Ireland. As you can tell from our history [7], he has been doing a great job with hardly any slaughter, famine, or subjugation to speak of. No honestly, we're fine, thanks for asking. Did you know he was also one of the patron Saints of Montserrat [8]? Well, now you do. The reasons for this are hotly contested but one version has that this Caribbean island nation was the lucky recipient of a large number of slaves and exiles from Ireland, from the 1600s onwards, who settled there and brought a bit of their culture over with them. St. Patrick's Day is still a national holiday in Montserrat and celebrated with gusto (and gumbo) [9]. 

Ok, let's cut to the chase: St. Patrick's Day is March the 17th, and although it isn't Ireland's official national day (that is Easter Sunday, to commemorate the insurrection on that date, 1916, that led to our independence [10]), it may as well be. It is a public/national holiday in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland (but not the rest of the UK), and Montserrat as above. However, while it may not be a national, official holiday elsewhere, it is nonetheless celebrated in may other countries: famously the US, Japan, Argentina, and others [11].

So what do the Irish do on St. Patrick's Day? The answer is depressingly binary, possibly trinary (my spellchecker is protesting at 'trinary' but if it isn't a word, it should be):

  • If you are 0-8 years old, you watch the parade down our capital's main street. The quality of this has been very variable but thankfully has been on an upward trend in the last 15 years or so. Back in the day, you'd get a couple of flatbed trucks with the name of a semi-state company hastily stenciled on the side and a few bales of hay on board (representing rural Ireland of yore or something). These days it is a lot more imaginative, with animatronic floats, street performers who actually are performers, instead of Mrs. McGillicuddy from Accounts Payable dressed up as a Leprechaun [12] , and normally includes lots of visitors from abroad; American High School Marching Bands, the Association of Korean-Irish Pensioners, and the like. If that sounds a little snarky, I should say that by and large, most of us really like the visitors. It is hard not to like people who visit your country of their own free will - when we are trying, in the main, to get the hell out - and spend all their time here telling you how great you are, while adding considerably to your economy. Besides, I personally never met a single visitor over for St.Patrick's Day who wasn't charming, interesting, and generally all around nice.
  • If you own children years 0-8, then you are the one bringing them into town to watch the parade.
  • If you do not fit into either of the two categories above, and are vaguely 'adult' (or at least in charge of your own movements and money), then what you are doing my friends - and I am not endorsing this - I'm just telling you like it is, from my own direct experience - is getting drunk. Rip-roaring, three-sheets-to-the-wind, danger-to-yourself and others-drunk. It is common for pubs to be packed out from opening time (10:30 for 95% of them, a tiny minority have a special license to open earlier).

Public drinking laws - never very strictly enforced at the best of times - are just ignored and it is very common to see people of all ages, from teenagers to the elderly, wander about town with open cans of beer or bottles of spirits. After the parade finishes (about 13:00, depending on where you are watching it), the center of Dublin basically becomes a no-go area, certainly if you are with children, almost certainly even if you are not. The logical effects of early and all-day drinking are on proud display: fights, vomiting, people making babies in public, trash. It isn't pretty and I think it is a fecking shame. Every year in the newspapers of March 18th, we are treated to 4-page spreads of drunken excess ... It's like the national equivalent of the "shame hangover" you get right after waking up and cringing as you remember "I did that?!! Oh no......". Out in the suburbs however and in smaller towns and the like it tends to be more civilized, with a more friendly, community-type vibe and many of the positive aspects of our culture (music, conversation, conviviality etc.) on display. So it isn't all bad. But if you find yourself on O'Connell Street [13] in Dublin past 13:00 on March 17th? Time to get out of Dodge, is my advice.

Oh, and the trinary bit? Well lots of us work on March 17th, even those not in the bar trade. I used to do so pretty much every year. You can imagine my delight each year on finally finishing work and emerging into some sort of Mad Max II ]14] post-apocalyptic wasteland....

With regards to other countries or regions, it varies: I've heard NYC has a similar problem with public drunkenness, (didn't notice it when I was there but I was a kid), Japan doesn't (by and large) and in some other countries that-shall-be-nameless it is hard to tell, such is their exuberance and/or fondness for the cup that cheers on the other 364 days of the year.

A few final points:

  • That thing? About gay people not being allowed to participate in the New York parade [15]? Utterly shameful in my view and nothing to do with "Irishness" or prevalent Irish attitudes and all to do with the Ancient Order of Hibernians [16] and whatever problems they have. Also to do with New York law regarding private organisations and whether they are allowed to proscribe membership. In the Republic of Ireland, they would be prosecuted under our anti-discrimination laws.
  • "Kiss me, I'm Irish"? It's cute the first 50,000 times. Less so after. I'll just leave that there.
  • Yes, we often have two faucets per sink or bath: one for hot water and one for cold. No, I don't know why. That's just the way it is (I swear this is one of the most frequent comments or questions I get from visitors). Just mix them for God's sake.

Ultimately, I hope I've done a tiny bit to inform you here and not turned you off the day itself or indeed Ireland. Yes it is true that we have a...'fondness' for alcohol (see Irish People: Why do Irish people have a reputation for enjoying alcohol?), or a madness for it, depending on who you listen to, but we do genuinely love to share the good aspects of our culture - of which there are many - with people as well.

On this day of all days, please accept my personal invitation - it's my island* - to be as Irish as you may wish to be, don't let anyone tell you that you can't be and celebrate with us any way you please, we'd love to see you on the day.


[1] Saint Patrick

[2] Saint

[3] Republic of Ireland

[4] Saint Patrick (snakes reference)

[5] List of reptiles of Ireland

[6] I'm not sure I agree with all the references here but it is enough to illustrate the point: Christian Feast Days and Their Relationship to Pagan Holidays

[7] History of Ireland

[8] Montserrat

[9] St Patrick's Day in Montserrat: the Caribbean's Emerald Isle - Telegraph

[10] Easter Rising

[11] Saint Patrick's Day

[12] Leprechaun

[13] O'Connell Street

[14] Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

[15] The gay ban of New York's St Patrick's Day parade is un-Irish

[16] Ancient Order of Hibernians

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