Who was Saint Patrick? Originally born near the end of the fourth century in Britain, probably Wales, he was captured by Irish pirates in his teens and was forced to work as a shepherd. In his early twenties, Patrick was able to escape and return to Britain, and sometime later had some kind of visionary call from God to go back to Ireland and give them the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Because he was familiar with the Irish language and culture, Patrick was able to incorporate the lessons of Christianity into their traditions. For example, he used bonfires to celebrate Easter since the Irish were used to honoring their gods with fire. He also superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross, so that veneration of the symbol would seem more natural to the Irish. It was said that he baptized thousands of people and was instrumental in radically changing Ireland.
Now, here is the mystery. Like others all around the country, our area will celebrate March 17th as St. Patrick’s Day. Around the nation, there will be parades, green milkshakes at restaurants, leprechaun-worthy shenanigans, and the city of Chicago will even dye its river green. But why? Why does the United States make such a big deal about a 5th-century Catholic monk? The reason goes back to what makes America the country that it is.
No one knows exactly when St. Patrick was born; some believed it was March 8th, and others thought it was the 9th, so in 1631 the Roman Catholic Church decided that both were right, combining them to come up with March 17th. The reason why they had to make it official was because this was an important day in Ireland. The patron saint of the island who was responsible for bringing the Christian faith to them was very highly revered. St. Patrick’s Day was a day of solemnity where Irish believers would go to church and attend modest feasts in the afternoon.
When Irish colonists came to America, they wished to continue this tradition, which also became an opportunity to celebrate their Irish heritage. The Irish first settled in New England, so it is not a surprise that the first recorded St. Patrick’s celebration was held in Boston in 1737. Ironically, it was the British Army that began America’s largest and longest St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It was in New York in 1752 that a group of Irish-born British soldiers marched through lower Manhattan to a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at a local tavern.
When Irish-Catholics flooded into the country in the decade following the failure of Ireland’s potato crop in 1845, the St. Patrick’s Day parade was a way for them to stand up to the bigotry shown to them by the militant, anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” Party. Thus, this celebration day that originally was designed to honor a Catholic saint began to take on a more profound importance. If Irish-Catholics could overcome the prejudice and bigotry shown to them, it should be true of other ethnic groups in the United States as well.
As the country evolved into the 20th century, St. Patrick’s Day grew into a day of celebration for Americans to recognize that all ethnicities can find a home here. An estimated 32 million Irish-Americans are making up about 10 percent of the country’s population. They, along with Jews, Italians, and those of African descent, have all helped this country continually redefine its culture.
Unlike countries such as Germany in the past and today’s Russia, China, Japan, and many others, we define Americans by allegiance to an ideal rather than genetic purity. Yes, we have stumbled along the way. It is absolutely true that our country’s history is stained by injustices shown to minorities such as forced migration of indigenous people in the early 1800s and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But if we are the horrific, intolerant country that certain public figures love to disparage, why is it that year in and year out, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world try desperately to come live here?
So, let’s lift up our green mug on St. Paddy’s Day and honor our Irish-American heritage, and at the same time, let’s acknowledge that we are the home of the brave and land of the free because of those coming from the north, the south, the east, and the west who have made this country their home.
Larry Stout welcomes your comments or input. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.