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A History of Saint Patrick's Day

According to folk legend, March 17th was the day that Saint Patrick took the “cold stone” out of the water – in other words the day on which winter could be said to be truly over and the sowing of crops could begin. Important dates in the agricultural season, in ancient times more often than not celebrated as pagan feasts, were routinely taken into the Christian calendar. The identification of March 17 with Saint Patrick could plausibly be claimed to fit in with that pattern. Saint Patrick’s Day did not become a public holiday in Ireland until 1903, when a bill was passed in the Westminster parliament, after it was instigated in the House of Lords by the Earl of Dunraven.

The earliest recorded evidence of Saint Patrick’s Day being celebrated outside of Ireland, other than by Irish soldiers, is provided by Jonathan Swift, the Dublin-born author of Gulliver’s Travels. In his Journal to Stella, he notes that in 1713 the parliament at Westminster was closed because it was Saint Patrick’s Day and that the Mall in London was so full of decorations that he thought “all the world was Irish”. The first Saint Patrick’s Day parade on record was held in New York in 1762 and seems to have been designed primarily as a recruiting rally by the English army in North America. The Americans were later to use the parade for similar ends.

The Irish in North America fought on both the English and French sides during the Seven Years War. In 1757, “English” troops camped at Fort Henry were attacked on Saint Patrick’s Day by “French” troops. The French contingent was largely made up of Irishmen. They reckoned that the many Irishmen in the English contingent would be the worse for wear, given the day that was in it. But they reckoned without the canniness of the English commander, John Stark. He had given his Irish troops their extra celebratory drop of grog the previous day!

These days Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations and parades take place all over the world. Major parades are held not only in Ireland, but also in New York, Boston, Savannah, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco and New Orleans. Parades are also held in many parts of Britain. Several are held in London alone. Manchester stages what is now reckoned to be the third largest of its kind in the world. Birmingham is not far behind.

Once confined to a single day, it now spreads itself over a week. A truly carnival atmosphere provides a backdrop for days of music, madness and magic, which include street theatre, fireworks displays, pageants, exhibitions, music and dance. Throughout the week, the Irish themselves do what they do best: having a party, a celebration full of warmth, fun and energy.



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