UK folklorist explains centuries-old history of St. Patrick’s Day

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 15, 2024) — While St. Patrick’s Day is associated with wearing green, community parades and shamrock hunting, the holiday is also grounded in history that dates back more than 1,500 years.

Did you know, the earliest known celebrations were held in the 17th century on March 17 — marking the anniversary of the death of St. Patrick in the 5th century?

Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, has expertise in how St. Patrick’s Day came to be.

As a folklorist, Rouhier-Willoughby studies traditional culture, such as songs and stories, rituals and holidays, and objects.

Folklorists also focus on unofficial cultural forms to better understand how people develop their identity as a member of a group — be it a family, a region or state, a profession, an ethnicity or a hobby.

Now, you can deepen your knowledge of St. Patrick’s Day, including the origins of some our favorites traditions, by diving into the Q&A session below.

UKNow: You are a folklorist. For those who don’t know much about your area of expertise, could you explain your research?

Rouhier-Willoughby: Folklorists study traditional culture, such as songs and stories, rituals and holidays, and objects — including food, instruments, pottery, weaving and embroidery, and housing. Folklorists focus on unofficial cultural forms to understand how people develop their identity as a member of a group — be it a family, a region or state, a profession, an ethnicity or a hobby.

UKNOW: Where and how did St. Patrick’s Day originate? And how has the holiday evolved over the decades? 

Rouhier-Willoughby: St. Patrick’s Day originated in Ireland and was celebrated beginning in the 17th century — after he was declared the Patron Saint of Ireland.

It also marks the day St. Patrick died, March 17 (sometime in the mid- to late 5th century).

St. Patrick was considered to have brought Christianity to Ireland, although he was not Irish. As a result, St. Patrick was considered a prominent Irish saint from the 8th century on.

In America, St. Patrick's Day slowly shifted from a religious observation to a secular celebration of Irish heritage. The secular version is much more focused on displaying Irish identity, especially among the diaspora who left Ireland for other countries.  

Irish-Americans in Boston held the first celebration in 1737: a dinner hosted by the newly founded Charitable Irish Society, which remains an annual tradition nearly three centuries later. In 1762, New York City held its first parade, which has become the largest and oldest St. Patrick's Day parade in the world.

UKNOW: What would an original St. Patrick’s Day celebration entail? 

Rouhier-Willoughby: The religious celebration involves pilgrimage to a sacred site associated with the saint, followed by a feast in his honor. In Patrick’s case, the pilgrimage was to Croagh Patrick — a mountain in County Mayo.

In the early years of the U.S. celebrations, because of the anti-Irish/anti-Catholic sentiment, there were often protesters (non-Irish and Protestant) who came out to challenge the marchers in parades, which lead to violence on occasion.

In the end, of course, the Irish became integrated into society, and this holiday became a spring celebration not limited to the Irish alone — but for everyone.

It’s particularly important in areas with large Irish populations: Boston, New York and Chicago. But we can also find St. Patrick’s Day parades in many communities, or at least some attempt to acknowledge the day at bars and restaurants, which typically serve specials.

UKNOW: How do different communities celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Is it the same everywhere, or are there examples of unique celebrations?

Rouhier-Willoughby: It’s not the same everywhere, since folklore is defined by variation based on region, ethnicity and religion, to name a few factors. But the general shape of the secular celebration involves a parade, wearing green and consuming Irish foods. One distinct example is in Chicago, where they dye the river green for St. Patrick’s Day.  

UKNOW: St. Patrick’s Day is often associated with legends. How did those stories originate?

Rouhier-Willoughby: Most of the legends surrounding St. Patrick’s Day relate to St. Patrick himself. They tell of a person who had the power to perform miracles — using Christ’s staff — and who drove the snakes out of Ireland. In some versions, he was able to cast curses and transform people into animals. St. Patrick’s is also said to have used the Irish symbol of the shamrock to explain the Trinity to unbelievers.  

UKNOW: Additionally, what are the origins behind common St. Patrick’s Day symbols?

Rouhier-Willoughby: Wearing green relates the holiday to Irish heritage, since the country is called the “Emerald Isle,” as well as to the country’s symbol, the shamrock.

Wearing green in Ireland became a type of protest about English rule, and by the 19th century, was a way to indicate support for Irish independence.  

As for leprechauns, they are not associated with St. Patrick himself, but with conveying Irishness that the holiday became associated with overseas. In that sense, they are like the shamrock and the color green.  

UKNOW: In your research, what is something that you have come across that stood out to you about St. Patrick’s Day?   

Rouhier-Willoughby: The most interesting thing about St. Patrick’s Day to me is how a tradition first viewed as suspicious in North America became an accepted, and, in some cases, a central part of public celebrations. It illustrates changing social roles for an émigré group, like the Irish. But it also raises the question: why all groups don’t have the same opportunities to make a holiday so prominent and widely celebrated, as Irish immigrants did.   

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