The History of St. Patrick’s Day

History Hub
9 March 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the Friendliest Day of the Year, St. Patrick’s Day gives people the world over reason to celebrate every March, no matter whether they share Irish genealogy or not. But what is the history behind St. Patrick’s Day?  Where and how did this holiday originate and how is it celebrated? 

Do you have Irish roots and want to know more about one of Irish culture’s most celebrated days? Even if you only bleed green once per year, learn all about the history of St. Patrick’s Day in America and Ireland, including fun traditions rooted in the Irish love of storytelling and folklore.

Who Was St. Patrick?

Believed to have been born around 373 A.D. in Roman Britain, the man who’d one day become St. Patrick was named Maewyn Succat when captured by Gaelic Irish raiders at the age of 16, according to his autobiographical letter, Confessio. 

Taken into the Hill of Tara, he spent 6 years as a shepherd  before receiving an angelic dream urging him to return home. He heeded his calling to the priesthood after reuniting with his family in Britain and before returning to Gaelic Ireland in 433 A.D. as a missionary.

Interestingly, while St. Patrick is the Patron Saint of Ireland, the Catholic Church never formally canonized him as an actual saint. This is simply due to the era he lived in. At that time, there was no formal canonization process in the Catholic Church. After becoming a priest and helping to spread Christianity throughout Ireland, Patrick was proclaimed a saint by Catholic tradition. 

What’s the Origin of St. Patrick’s Day?

Though St. Patrick lived in the fourth century A.D., the Catholic Church only honored him with a feast day beginning in 1631. This feast day was named after St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, and since it fell during Lent, it served as a day off from the fasting and abstinence required before Easter. By the 1700s, the holiday became more celebratory than reverent, which created the classic St. Patrick’s Day background most people think of today.

Near the middle of the 19th century, disaster struck Ireland. A mold destroyed precious potato crops and plunged the country into a period of famine known as the Irish Potato Famine. Between 1845 and 1852, more than 25 percent of Ireland’s population fled starvation and disease, with many emigrants settling in the United States. The growing Irish population in the U.S. served as a catalyst for the religious holiday becoming a secular celebration. 

These traditions continue to this day in cities around the world. For example, the city of Chicago has dyed the waters of its namesake river green every year since 1962 to celebrate the Irish holiday, while Rolla, Missouri, paints the city streets green annually in honor of the saint.

st patricks day parade
U.S., Library of Congress Photo Collection, 1840-2000

When Is St. Patrick’s Day and How is it Celebrated?

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland and America typically falls on March 17, though the Catholic Church sometimes changes the date to avoid it falling during the Holy Week of Easter. 

These celebrations generally include a showcase of traditionally Irish iconography and traditions, including:

  • The shamrock: St. Patrick is believed to have used the three-leafed clover as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity while introducing Christianity to Ireland.
  • Leprechauns: These mischievous sprites have become a staple of Irish imagery. Notably cantankerous, they are also known for their traditional green garb and for supposedly protecting treasure via trickery. 
  • The wearing of the green: Green shamrocks and green-garbed leprechauns have helped make the color synonymous with Irish pride. Referring to Ireland as the Emerald Isle reinforces that notion even more. On St. Patrick’s Day, many choose to dress in green to celebrate their Irish heritage or as a show of solidarity with the Irish.
  • “Kiss me, I’m Irish”: Whether you believe it was acquired during the Crusades or made from the same material used in the construction of Stonehenge, Blarney Castle’s Blarney Stone is ostensibly the world’s most famous chunk of limestone. Popular legend states that kissing the Blarney Stone imbues the kisser with exceptional eloquence and luck, which has led to this phrase being associated with St. Patrick’s Day.

Who Celebrates St. Patrick’s Day?

No matter who you ask about the real history of St. Patrick’s Day, however, you’re likely to be welcomed to a cold pint and a story or three about those with Irish genealogy who spread the traditions around the world.

Are you curious as to whether you’re Irish year-round or just on St. Patrick’s Day? Ancestry® can help you trace your family line to the Emerald Isle and beyond. 

Discover more about your personal journey today and  outline your own family tree.