Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Ken Walcheck  |   Friday Mar. 1st, 2024

This year, St. Patrick’s Day will be observed on Sunday, March 17. Starting as a special Christian feast day in the 17th century celebrating the life of St. Patrick and the spreading of Christianity to Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has evolved into one of celebration in many countries, with parades, music, dancing, wearing the green and, of course, drinking a few green beers. It’s a day of revelry and celebration of all things Irish.

Who was St. Patrick? Was he a real person? Is that legend about the snakes in Ireland true? What are shamrocks (three-leaf clovers) a symbol of today? Is there corn in the traditional St. Patrick’s Day menu of corned beef and cabbage? And why do we wear green on St. Patrick’s Day?

Was there really a St. Patrick? Yes, absolutely. St. Patrick is the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland. He is credited with successfully spreading Christianity throughout Ireland – hence the Christian celebration of his life and name. Did he really drive all the snakes out of Ireland? Among the legends associated with St. Patrick is that he stood atop an Irish hillside and banished snakes from Ireland. Research suggests snakes never occupied Ireland. There are no records of snakes in Ireland’s fossil records.

Much of what is known about St. Patrick’s life has been interwoven with folklore and legend. Historians generally believe that St. Patrick was born in Britain (part of the Roman Empire at the time) as Maewyn Succat near the end of the 4th Century. At age 16, he was kidnapped from his home by Irish raiders and sold as a slave to a Celtic priest in the area now known as Northern Ireland. After toiling for six years as a shepherd, he escaped his captors, walking nearly 200 miles through the Irish landscape, finally finding a ship to him carry back to Britain. It was here that Maewyn received his call (in a dream) to preach the gospel. He spent the next 15 years in a monastery in Britain preparing for missionary work. When he became a priest, his name was changed to Patricius, and he returned to Ireland to begin his missionary teachings. Patricius traveled from village to village, which were largely pagan, to share the teachings of the Lord, and was successful in founding many churches. 

Why is the shamrock associated with St. Patrick’s Day? Legend says St. Patrick used the shamrock’s three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity (three aspects of Divinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in his teachings.
The symbol of St. Patrick is the three-leaf shamrock, not a four-leaf clover. In the early 1900’s O. H. Benson, an Iowa school superintendent, came up with the idea of using a clover as the emblem for a newly founded agricultural club for youths. In 1911, the four-leaf clover was chosen as the emblem for the national program, later named 4-H.

More St. Patrick’s Day facts, fun and folklore
• Blue was the color originally associated with St. Patrick, but green is now favored by most people.
• The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the American colonies was held in New York City on March 17, 1762.
• There isn’t any corn in the traditional St. Patrick’s Day menu of corned beef and cabbage. The name is a reference to the large grains of salt historically used to cure meats, which were also known as “corns.” Over the last century, green beer has continued to go hand-in-hand with corned beef and St. Paddy’s Day festivities.
• St. Patrick’s Day takes place on March 17 each year because St. Patrick’s death is believed to have been on March 17, 1761. 
• Green was introduced to St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the 18th Century, due to the shamrock’s popularity and Ireland’s green landscape.
• St. Patrick’s Day is the traditional day for planting pea and cabbage seeds, even in the snow. Old-time farmers believed that to make them grow well, you needed to plant them while wearing your nightclothes!
• A favorite Irish bar joke: Q: Why should you never iron a four-leaf clover? A: You don’t want to press your luck.

St. Patrick’s Day and Green Beer
The subject of green beer has an interesting and, daresay, colorful history. Here are some facts about green beer:
• The tradition of drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day did not begin in Ireland; its origin is American. The vibrant-hued beer was first created by Dr. Thomas Curtin, a New York physician who served it as a surprise for guests at a Bronx clubhouse in 1914. Curtin added to the beer something called “wash blue,” an iron powder intended for whitening clothes. Today, food coloring produces the best results because it balances the natural yellowish hue of the beer.

• Today’s brewers typically use the term green beer to refer to beer that has not been fully fermented.
• The historical volume, Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History mentions an old custom known as “Drowning the Shamrock,” where beer drinkers add green shamrocks to their beverages on St. Patrick’s Day. That could have been Dr. Curtin’s inspiration for his version of green beer.
• Whether you celebrate the day with green beer, a dark Guinness, or an Irish whiskey, you may consider pairing it with Irish soda bread, or corned beef.
• According to medical researchers, consumption of excessive amounts of green beer by some drinkers can lead to extra weight on the bladder.
• The current number of green beers consumed in Montana bars and restaurants on St. Paddy’s Day is not known. But it would be a safe bet to say that Butte leads the pack. If you like to party like the folks do in Butte – home to one of the largest St. Paddy’s Day celebrations in the country – then it’s a place for you. Grab a pint, listen to the bagpipes, and taste the shepherd’s pie, corned beef and cabbage, and the Irish pub salad—all of which makes for a fabulous day of celebration.

About the Author(s)

Ken Walcheck

Ken Walcheck is a Bozeman resident, and a retired Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Information Wildlife Biologist. He continues to write Montana natural history wildlife articles.

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