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There Were Never Snakes In Ireland

The Story of St. Patrick’s Day

Nathan Watts

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As far as saints go, St. Patrick is easily among the top five most famous, but who was he? What did he do? The short answer to both questions is “not much,” but I’m sure that neither my supervisor nor my fans would very much appreciate a two word article, so let us fire up the Delorean and take another voyage through Holiday History.

First of all: Ol’ Patty wasn’t even Irish, he was born in Roman Britain and kidnapped to Ireland at age 16. While this may be good news to you Protestants out there, it basically undermines the entire “wear green on St. Patrick’s day” tradition, but I’ll get into that later. In any case, after escaping from slavery, Pat returned to Ireland and opened the first Christian mission, gaining credit for bringing it to the emerald isle.

That’s it! That’s all he did. It’s the ancient equivalent of opening a Greenpeace in Africa and then dying. But, as most things back then did, he gained more and more fame through rumors and speculation by the people left over after his death.

Through these rumors, he gained credit for the fame of Shamrocks, which he supposedly used the three leaves of to explain the father, son, and holy spirit. Thanks to this, whenever the anniversary of his death, March 17th, rolled around, 10th century Irish Catholics would wear clovers in their lapels or other places to honor the island’s patron saint. Later, this evolved into simply wearing green on the day, and thus cemented centuries of racial stereotyping against Ireland and her people.

Furthermore, Saint Patrick is celebrated for driving the snakes out of Ireland. This was truly a feat for celebration, or would have been if there were ever snakes in the first place! There were never snakes in Ireland! The waters are far too cold for any cold blooded reptiles to swim across and, considering it’s an island, that would have been the only way for them to arrive considering the snake trade was virtually non-existent outside of super villain traps and Indiana Jones movie sets.

To be fair, the story began as a metaphor. The snakes were paganism and Saint Patrick had supposedly drove paganism out of Ireland by establishing his mission. I wouldn’t critique it so harshly if it had stayed that way, but many people think that he literally Pied Piper’d a bunch of actual snakes across freezing waters and out of the Emerald Isle.

Not much changed about the holiday for the next couple of centuries. People would attend church in the morning and then celebrate in the afternoon, lifting the Lenten prohibition of meat for an afternoon, feasting on the traditional Irish bacon and cabbage.

Nowadays, St. Patrick’s day hosts hundreds of the nation’s longest and most celebrated parades, but how did this come to be? Sure, it was commonplace to sing and dance, and make general merriment, but there weren’t any actual parades until centuries later in America!

On March 17th, 1762, Irishmen in the English military marched through New York City. However, this wasn’t a parade for celebration, but one with a purpose: to get to the pub. That’s right, the first St. Patrick’s day parade was a bunch of Irish soldiers marching through the streets to get drunk. And you wonder how that stereotype was started!

During the next 35 years, Irish-American pride grew stronger and stronger, eventually creating “Irish aid” societies such as the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society who would host annual Saint Patrick’s Day parades which included bagpipes (originally popularized in Scottish armies) and drums. In 1848, the societies decided to unify into one large parade.

Because of groups like these, Irish-Americans began to realize that their large and growing numbers endowed them with a certain political power, and they began to shed their oppression.

Suddenly, the “Green Machine” became more and more integral to elections as one of the largest swing voting groups in America. With this groups becoming so prevalent to presidential elections and even more so for city elections, the Saint Patrick’s Day parade became exceedingly important for mayoral and presidential aspirants to attend.

Thanks to this new importance to the country, Saint Patrick’s Day parades became more and more prevalent in American culture and eventually yielded the largest annual parade of New York and the world with over 150,000 participants, 3 million physical spectators (people who actually line the streets, not just televised parade viewers), and a 1.5 mile route which takes approximately 5 hours to complete.

And that’s the story. See how little of all that included Saint Patrick himself? Like a paragraph at best. Just like all holidays, the modern version is wildly different from the original thanks to rumors, lies, speculation, and general misinformation. But this is not a bad thing! If it weren’t for blatant lies, we’d all be in anarchy, and wouldn’t have civilized thought so that we could appreciate Holiday History.


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There Were Never Snakes In Ireland