Pubs officially closed on March 17 pre-1970s.Photocall Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day is associated with many things: wearing green, breaking Lent, making an attempt to try out your cúpla focal (few words of Gaelic/Irish), going to a parade and, of course, drowning the shamrock. There is no other day in the year in which the drunken Irish stereotype is more pronounced and used as an excuse by some to enjoy themselves a bit too much.

You may be surprised to know that, in Ireland, this hasn’t always been the case. March 17 marks the fifth century death of our beloved patron saint and, for over a thousand years, has been celebrated as a religious feast day.

In fact, up until the 1970s, Irish law prohibited pubs opening on March 17 as a mark of respect for this religious day. It was feared that leaving the pubs open would be too tempting for some during Lent and would lead to a disrespectful amount of drunkenness on this most solemn day.

According to history, St. Patrick was a missionary to Ireland. If we look back to his writings, we find that he believed his enslavement in Ireland was a result of his lack of faith in his younger years and his return to Ireland following his escape from slavery came from a compulsion to spread the word of God to Ireland and repent for these sins. He stature grew until he was adored by the Irish as the person who brought Christianity to the Emerald Isle.

In times gone by, canonizations were carried out on a regional level, meaning that Patrick has never officially been canonized by a Pope, although he is included in the list of saints. The feast day was only officially placed on the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar in the early 1600s with thanks to Waterford-born Franciscan scholar Luke Wadding. From then on it has been a holy day of obligation for Ireland's Catholics (they are obliged to participate in the Mass). Until the 1700s, St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated predominantly in Ireland where it was a somber religious occasion spent mainly in prayer.

Spectators lining streets to view St. Patrick's day parade, Ireland, in 1905. Photo from National Library of Ireland.

Spectators lining streets to view St. Patrick's day parade, Ireland, in 1905. Photo from National Library of Ireland.

From the 18th century onward, as a result of the Penal Laws in Ireland, some Irish people began to use St. Patrick’s Day as a means of promoting Irish culture and tradition. So as to show their Irish Christian pride, the tradition of wearing of shamrocks began, but the day still revolved around the Catholic rites.

St. Patrick’s Day didn’t become an official Irish public holiday until 1903 with the introduction of the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act 1903. This act was introduced by Irish Member of Parliament James O’Mara, who was also responsible for the law that required the closing of pubs on March 17.

In Ireland, the typical St. Patrick's Day celebration before the '70s and the lifting of the ban on the sale of alcohol was very different from the party atmosphere associated with the day now. As St. Patrick’s Day falls within the Christian season of Lent, mass was attended in the morning with the afternoon set aside for celebrations. {If St Patrick's Day fell on a Friday the Lenten prohibition against meat was lifted for the day.} Families sang and danced and celebrated, a break during the normally somber time of Lent.

St Patrick's Day Organizing Committee, 1927. Photo from National Library of Ireland.

St Patrick's Day Organizing Committee, 1927. Photo from National Library of Ireland.

Before the drinking ban was repealed, there was only one place in Ireland where one could buy a drink on March 17: The Royal Dublin Dog Show. The Dog Show would see a wide attendance, with not just dog lovers attending but also writers and politicians and anybody else who wanted to do more than eat chocolate and sweets on this one cheat-day during Lent.

As Maeve Binchy wrote in a 2001 article for the New York Times, “Dublin was the dullest place on earth to spend St. Patrick's Day.” Binchy recalls how her family and she would watch with amazement as they saw Irish in other parts of the world indulging heavily in the festivities while the homeland suffered through a day of thirst.

The evolution of St. Patrick’s Day into the ruckus it is now associated with it may, in fact, have been an Irish-American construct. Despite the fact that the feast day has been observed in Ireland since the 9th or 10th century, it was in New York City that the first parade took place, when in 1762 Irish soldiers serving with the British army marched through Manhattan to a local tavern. Patriotism among Irish immigrants in America continued to grow with the New York Irish Aid societies holding the first official parade in 1848 – the world’s oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States. The first parade in the Irish Free State did not take place until 1931.

The promotion of Paddy’s Day in Ireland truly began in 1995 when the Irish Government realized the potential tourism benefits of celebrating the day and the opportunities for the country to sell its culture and and sights to the rest of the world. This resulted in the creation of the St. Patrick’s Day Festival – the multi-day celebration that we now have in Dublin in which approximately one million people take part annually.

Skyfest, Cashel, Tipperary. Photo by Photocall Ireland.

Skyfest, Cashel, Tipperary. Photo by Photocall Ireland.

There are still certain religious links evident in our adoration of St. Patrick. Each year, 5.5 million people visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and there are over 450 churches across America named after Ireland’s patron saint. Almost 650,000 babies in the US have been named Patrick in the past 100 years. In recent years, St. Patrick's Day spending has grown to almost $4.14 billion annually with nearly 122 million Americans (or 39% of the population) celebrating the occasion.

There have been calls by some to bring back the old pre-70s traditions and to return to the religious feast day. In 2007, theologian Fr. Vincent Twomey argued for this return to religion in an article for The Word magazine. Fr. Twomey claimed that the day needed to be reclaimed as a Church festival and taken back from the secular and vulgar festival that it had become.

Calls for an end to drinking culture on Paddy's Day. Photo by Photocall Ireland.

Calls for an end to drinking culture on Paddy's Day. Photo by Photocall Ireland.

Within the Church itself, there are certain traditions that are still retained, although they may go unnoticed among those attending the larger corporate events. As St. Patrick’s Day sometimes falls during Holy Week, and the church avoids holding feast days during certain solemnities such as Lent, there have been times when the feast day has moved to a different day. This happened last in 2008 when St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated by the Church on March 14, although the separate secular events continued on the national holiday. This will not happen again until 2160.

St. Patrick’s Day, whether you drink or not, has become synonymous with many people’s Irish culture and identity. In the past, this meant a strong link with Irish Catholic tradition and, perhaps as a representation of the Irish population’s own relationship with the Catholic Church, has subsequently become more of a patriotic symbol that represents Ireland and it’s culture worldwide separate to the religious feast day.

Should pubs be closed on St. Patrick’s Day? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.