Newswise — CHICAGO — From dyeing the Chicago River green to the annual parade in Boston, St. Patrick’s Day has become an American tradition where everyone is Irish. However, these annual March celebrations were born from the painful experiences of early Irish immigrants, many of whom were Catholic.
“Irish immigrants to America had a very difficult story in the 19th and early 20th century,” said Mary McCain, Irish studies instructor at DePaul University in Chicago.
“Even as far back as the American Revolution, Catholics were viewed with deep suspicion, especially because the Catholic Church is not a democracy,” McCain explained. “In addition, most Irish immigrants were poor. Having grown up on farms, most did not have skills that translated to the large urban areas they were migrating to.”
McCain noted that Irish immigrants began holding parades on St. Patrick’s Day as a celebration of their culture and a rallying cry for fellow immigrants.
“These early immigrants, by having their parades, were saying, ‘We’re here, we’re staying and we’re going to make our way in this country,’” McCain said. “Jump to 2013 and we see people wearing buttons saying ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish.’ Being Irish has become something to celebrate. It’s a great American story.”
Irish roots of American tradition
In a strange turn of events, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland have been influenced by those in the U.S. St. Patrick’s Day has long been a public holiday in Ireland, but was traditionally a much quieter affair.
“Families would get together for a meal, many attended mass, and that was the extent of it,” McCain said. “The new Irish Free State had military parades on March 17 starting in the 1920s, but it's only been in the last 20 years or so that it's become the ‘St. Patrick's Day Festival,’ a multi-day event more along the lines of our big cities' celebrations here in the U.S. In fact, most of the publicly festive traditions were imported from and heavily influenced by big cities in the United States.”
Who was St. Patrick?
St. Patrick’s Day is marked on March 17 to commemorate the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death.
“St. Patrick played a huge role in spreading Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century,” said McCain, an instructor of history, Catholic studies and religious studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at DePaul. “Christianity reached Ireland pretty early on, and while St. Patrick was probably not the first Christian to set foot on Ireland’s shores, he was definitely the most influential of his period and was a very passionate missionary.”
McCain noted that St. Patrick was actually not from Ireland, but was brought there against his will as a child. At the age of 16 he was taken into slavery. He escaped six years later and went to Britain, which some historians have identified as his birthplace. As an adult, Patrick joined the priesthood.
“One day he claimed to have had a vision in which he received letters from people he recognized as Irish,” McCain noted. “The letters told him ‘Young man, come and walk amongst us once more,’ which Patrick felt was a call to return to Ireland to spread Christ to the pagans living there.”
About those snakes
To explain the absence of snakes in Ireland, it became legend that they had all been banished by St. Patrick. In one version of the story, St. Patrick chased all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill.
“In reality, it was evolution that prevented snakes from coming to Ireland,” McCain explained. “By the time snakes had come along – and they do exist in England – Ireland was already separated by the ocean.”
However, this myth has slid so deeply into the public consciousness that many prominent images portray St. Patrick wearing his bishop’s outfit and stepping on the head of a snake.
“It makes sense for people to create stories for things they do not understand – such as the lack of snakes in Ireland,” McCain said. “This is one of those stories that, while not factually true, tells us a lot about how St. Patrick is remembered. The snake is often a symbol of bad things, and may symbolize the old, misguided ways of the Irish people before the ray of truth (St. Patrick) came in and drove the darkness (snakes) into the sea.”