Americans will don their Kelly green on Monday, gathering at bars and along parade routes to celebrate St. Patrick, the patron saint of dancing leprechauns and half-price pints of Guinness — or so the past few decades would suggest.
But whether it’s a weariness toward hangovers, or a curiosity for the past, a growing number of people are choosing to forgo the plastic beads and green beer in favor of the original meaning of March 17.
“The Irish have a long tradition of community service and celebrating being involved in the community,” said Neil Cosgrove, national anti-defamation chairman of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the country’s largest Irish-Catholic organization. “There is this idea of welcoming everybody to celebrate with us, that somewhere has been distorted.”
U.S. Census data shows that roughly 34 million Americans claim Irish descent, which is nearly eight times as many people as there are in Ireland.
Linda McKinnish Bridges, associate dean for international admissions at Wake Forest University, said March 17 — believed to be the day Patrick died — became a day for Irish immigrants and Irish Americans to remember their heritage.
“My great grandfather, who came from Ireland, wore green on this day,” said Ms. Bridges, whose published work includes ‘The Fourth Gospel and Celtic Christianity.’ I never really understood why he wore green until the next generation explained it was the way he remembered his Irish heritage.”
This Irish pride led to large parades in Chicago, Boston and New York City — which still hold the parades today. In Chicago, city officials pour green dye into the Chicago River. Massachusetts deemed March 17 an official holiday celebrated as Evacuation Day, when British troops withdrew during the Revolutionary War.
The belief and interest in Patrick only caught on after the man had been dead for about 200 years, explained Philip Freeman, a professor of classics at Luther College.
Patrick was in fact born in Britain around 400 A.D. and was kidnapped and sold into slavery at 16 by Irish slave traders.
After seven years slaving as a sheepherder, Patrick heard a voice in his dreams, instructing him to board a ship home. He followed the instructions, talked his way aboard a ship, and sailed back to Britain, only to be told in another dream he should return to Ireland and spread the gospel.
“After he died, some time in the late 400s, he was pretty much forgotten about for a couple hundred years,” Mr. Freeman said. “About 200 years later, he starts to become popular again, and seen as the patron saint of Ireland, who brought Christianity to Ireland, although he wasn’t the first missionary there, or the first bishop.”
“Really, it’s the Irish Americans who invented the modern St. Patrick’s Day,” Mr. Freeman said.
And today it’s the Irish Americans looking for a more traditional spin on the holiday.
William Reilly, a New York-based television executive and producer, has started a Sober St. Patrick’s Day event that is now in its third year.