Texas Tech University

A Closer Look at St. Patrick's Day and What It Means

Doug Hensley

March 16, 2023

The day has religious, secular and nationalistic roots in Ireland and America that date back centuries.

It's no secret that March 17 has long been recognized as St. Patrick's Day, a special day that is celebrated locally in a variety of ways with an emphasis on the color green, shamrocks and all things Irish.

It's a day when you're more likely to hear people speaking in Irish accents with various degrees of success while sipping on a green-tinted beer and pondering whether to eat corned beef and cabbage.

But what's the day really about and why is it embraced so heartily across America?

Daniella McCahey
Daniella McCahey

“St. Patrick is a religious figure,” said Daniella McCahey, an assistant professor in the department of history at Texas Tech. “But once we start seeing the rise of nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he's also a figure who becomes associated with a specific national identity.”

For those unfamiliar, St. Patrick is a patron saint of Ireland and is acknowledged as the figure who brought Christianity to the country. He lived during the fifth century, and March 17 is recognized as the date of his death and has been considered a religious holiday in Ireland for more than 1,000 years, according to the History Channel.

“He is the clergyman who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland from Britain, but he isn't the only patron saint of Ireland,” said McCahey, who came to Texas Tech and the College of Arts and Sciences in 2020. “There are actually three patron saints, all of which are recognized by both the Anglican and Catholic Churches.”

The way the day is acknowledged in Ireland is different from how it is celebrated in America, where there is a clear separation between church and state.

“In the United States, we culturally believe in this idea of a secular society, whether it is accurate or not,” she said. “That's not the case in every country in the world. For example, in Great Britain, the king is also the head of the Anglican Church, and it's been that way since the Reformation in the 16th century.”

At one time, Ireland was a British colony, but that changed in the 1920s – although Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom to this day.

“In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day is a national holiday but until the 20th century, it was not celebrated there the way it was celebrated in the U.S.,” she said. “It remained a politically fraught topic in some areas, particularly in Northern Ireland, where it became associated with Catholic communities during the sectarian conflict.”

The Northern Ireland conflict known as “The Troubles” was an often-violent political and nationalistic dispute that began in the early 1960s and lasted until a peace settlement was reached in 1998.

“There was a loyalist bombing on St. Patrick's Day in 1976 during that conflict,” McCahey said. “In Northern Ireland it wasn't celebrated in the way that it was a holiday in the republic (of Ireland).”

As Irish people left their home country and migrated elsewhere for a variety of reasons, they brought their St. Patrick's Day traditions with them.

“In the 19th century we start seeing a very widespread diaspora of Irish Catholics,” she said. “In the 1840s with the potato famine, there were waves of migration throughout the century, and celebrating St. Patrick's Day also became a celebration of Irish national identity.”

Eventually, this led to celebrations in the United States, particularly in cities with large Irish populations who, because of budgetary limitations, incorporated corned beef into their holiday meal.

“Corned beef is not something people really eat in Ireland,” she said. “It became associated with a way to celebrate because in the United States, corned beef was an inexpensive cut of meat. In most of Ireland, you don't find many corned beef dishes, but it became associated with Irish immigrants in the United States.”

Still, the day remained largely tethered to its Irish origins and traditions, although these celebrations steadily grew and took on secular dimensions.

“Celebrating in the U.S. with parades became a way of celebrating that national identity,” she said. “But it wasn't just here; the Irish also migrated to other countries like Australia and Canada, so the day was linked to religion but also to other kind of values of celebrating their Irishness. The Irish diaspora is huge, and in the U.S., Irish heritage is one of the largest ethnic identities with many people going to Ireland and trying to trace their family heritage.”

St. Patrick's Day celebrations also included the color green, which, McCahey said, is an association that dates to medieval times.

“Green was not always explicitly linked to St. Patrick,” she said. “Again, you have these ties where you can't parse religion and culture and identity as separate things.

Oftentimes, you see St. Patrick depicted wearing green and a bishop's mitre, and if you were to go to Ireland, you would see that it is very green in terms of its landscape, and green has become a symbol of Irishness.

“So why do we drink green beer? Or why do they dye the Chicago River green? Again, it's a celebration of national identity, and it would be akin to if we made red, white and blue beer. The Irish flag is green, white and orange, and the green is symbolic of the Catholic Irish community in Ireland while the orange is symbolic of the Protestant community with the white representing the peaceful relationship between them.”

In many circles these days, St. Patrick's Day celebrations are not as much about the saint or the conversion of Ireland to Christianity.

“It's more about heritage,” she said.