St. Patrick’s Day: Delve into Irish culture with the saint of Emerald Isle

Girl with red hair in traditional Irish dress in dark blue

An Irish dancer at the 2014 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in San Francisco. Photo by Mark, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, MARCH 17: Tender corned beef, cold brews and plenty of green sweep across the globe today, as the world turns to the Emerald Isle for St. Patrick’s Day.

From New York City’s legendary parade to Dublin’s four-day festival; from Montreal’s shamrock pride to New Zealand’s green Sky Tower, there’s no shortage of Irish culture anywhere. This year, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny is scheduled to spend St. Pat’s in Washington with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, discussing global issues and participating together in the annual Shamrock Ceremony. Elsewhere, the Irish and Irish-at-heart will be marching in parades, wishing on four-leaf clovers and remembering that early Christian saint known as St. Patrick.


The legendary patron saint of Ireland began life c. 385 CE, in Roman Britain. With a wealthy family whose patron was a deacon, St. Patrick led a comfortable life until his teenage years, when he was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. During his six years in Ireland, Patrick gained a deeper Christian faith. When he dreamed that God told him to flee to the coast, Patrick did so—and traveled home to become a priest. (Wikipedia has details.) Following ordination, however, another dream prompted Patrick to do what no one expected: to return to Ireland.

As a Christian in Ireland, Patrick worked to convert the pagan Irish. With a three-leaved shamrock in hand to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans, St. Patrick converted many. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 at Downpatrick.


Surprisingly, the most widely known saint from Ireland was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church. Since no formal canonization process existed in the Church’s first millennium, St. Patrick was deemed a saint only by popular acclaim and local approval. Nonetheless, St. Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day by the early 17th century, observed by the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans and members of the Church of Ireland. Today, countries the world over offer citizens and tourists Irish-themed foods, drinks and culture on March 17. Dances, processions, performances and more illustrate the vibrancy of Irish history—all set against the very Irish color of green.

Skillet pan with pot pie vegetables and meat in gravy and potatoes braised and mashed on top

Beef and lamb shepherd’s pie for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo by Dennis Wilkinson, courtesy of Flickr


Who doesn’t dream of hearty Irish stews, hot Reuben sandwiches and cold drinks on St. Patrick’s Day? Get into the Irish spirit with these recipe ideas (and some crafts, to boot):

  • A plethora of easy-to-follow recipes, from brisket to soda bread, is at AllRecipes.
  • Kids can get into the spirit of the Irish with craft ideas from PBS and

St. Patrick’s Day: Feel the luck o’ the Irish for a Christian saint

Strips of corned beef on a plate, with chunks of potatoes and carrots mixed in

Corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and carrots—traditional fare on St. Patrick’s Day. Photo by Jeff Kubina, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MARCH 17: Legends of snakes and shamrocks color the world green today, as Christians, the Irish and anyone who enjoys some corned beef and Guinness celebrates St. Patrick’s Day.

In honor of a missionary saint born in the 4th century, St. Patrick’s Day has, since its earliest days, been observed gaily by the Irish; the day later became a landmark of Irish culture, food and history just about everywhere. Lenten restrictions are typically lifted on St. Patrick’s Day, so Christians, too, can enjoy participate in the frivolous activities.


Despite the renowned holiday, the life of St. Patrick remains shrouded in mystery. Only a few credible writings exist, including Patrick’s own Latin letters, Declaration and Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. In Declaration, Patrick gives an account of his life and mission, while also humbling himself before God in gratuity. Most scholars hold a theory known as “Two Patricks,” in that several of the details not mentioned in Declaration actually belonged to the life of Palladius, a bishop sent by Pope Celestine I to Ireland. With time, the two lives were blended into one.


Stained glass, blue background, with St. Patrick in green robes and holding shamrock

Photo by James Walsh, courtesy of Flickr

Historical accounts date Patrick’s birth to approximately 385 CE. A Roman Briton born near Dumbarton, Scotland, Patrick resided with his family until his mid-teens, when he was captured by raiders; Patrick was kidnapped to Ireland, and spent six years as an enslaved sheep herder. (Wikipedia has details.) It was during this time of captivity that he turned to God, finding a passion for the Christian faith of his father and grandfather amid pagan Ireland. He wrote:

“The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was rosed, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same.”

One night, at age 20, Patrick had a dream: God told him to leave Ireland by going to the coast. Patrick risked his life and ran for the coast, convinced sailors to let him board, and returned home to his family. At home, Patrick was plagued by dreams that bade him back to Ireland, and after studying for priesthood, he returned to Ireland. (Learn more from American Catholic.) Patrick would spend almost 40 years Christianizing pagan Ireland, gathering disciples and building churches. Royal families and entire kingdoms converted to Christianity after hearing Patrick’s creed, and rumor of miracles circulated. At the end of his mission, Patrick died at Saul, near the first church he had built. The date was March 17, 461 CE.

Did you know? Patrick has never formally been canonized by a Pope. (Don’t worry—he’s still on the List of Saints.)


The shamrock was treasured in Ireland long before the advent of Christianity, as a symbol of rebirth and the Triple Goddesses; St. Patrick used the plant to illustrate the Holy Trinity to the pagans. Originally, the color associated with St. Patrick was blue, but as years passed, green grew in popularity. The legend that St. Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland is also false—at least, in a literal sense. It has been suggested that this story refers to the tattoo of a serpent that many Druids bore, and St. Patrick, thereby, “banished” the pagan religion.


Green cupcakes with white frosting and shamrock sprinkles, with green wall background

A green velvet cupcake for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo by Christi, courtesy of Flickr

Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and what better way to get into the Irish spirit than with some enticing fare?

  • Food and Wine suggests savory recipes for meat and potatoes, naturally green foods and Guinness ice cream.
  • Authentic shepherd’s pie, soda bread and green velvet layer cake are showcased at Food Network.


St. Patrick’s festivities have been gathering momentum worldwide, from the St. Patrick’s Day Festival in Dublin—which gathers crowds of close to 1 million and began earlier this week—to the longest-running parade in North America, in Montreal. The Chicago River has been dyed green annually for more than 50 years, but this year, residents ask: Can you dye ice? (The answer, Chicago Tribune reports: Yes, you can.)