Answers to your St. Patrick’s Day questions: Who he was, why we wear green and more

St. Patrick’s Day in America may be seen as some as a pot of gold on the calendar – a chance to don green while swigging jade beer and searching for an ounce of Irish ancestry with the same tenacity as you would a four-leaf clover. 

But as the experts tell it, the day that originated in America is a prideful one for Irish and Irish Americans, one where their heritage is celebrated.

To get the scoop on the holiday, we turned to Elizabeth Stack, executive director of Albany’s Irish American Heritage Museum and Brian Witt, the cultural exhibits coordinator for Milwaukee Irish Fest.

Here’s how they answered questions that you may have:

Who was St. Patrick and why do we celebrate?

St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, brought to the Emerald Isle when he was kidnapped and enslaved. Though he eventually escaped, he returned and advanced Christianity throughout the island. He is celebrated on March 17 because that is the day he is believed to have died. 

Witt says the day gives Irish and Irish Americans the opportunity to “celebrate their heritage,” and Stack agrees that the parades in places like the states and England convey “that the Irish people have made a contribution to the society – that they were sort of welcomed, that they were accepted as citizens.”

Did St. Patrick drive snakes out of Ireland?

The National Museum of Ireland has said it looks like we would not have had snakes,” says Stack, adding that the snake is believed to be a metaphor for the Druids. 

Is St. Patrick’s Day a religious holiday?

It is and it isn’t, Witt says, noting some parades in the U.S. are preceded by Catholic masses. He believes, “Most people have no idea of any religious significance.” 

Stack says the day is a religious holiday in Ireland, mentioning the island’s high Catholic population.

“It’s a holy day of obligation for Catholics (in Ireland), which means they are supposed to attend mass,” she says. 

How did St. Patrick’s Day become a drinking holiday?

Stack says alcohol was “really not much not part” of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland until recently. “It was kind of a family day that you’d celebrate, but no alcohol was available. … Because it was a holiday in Lent, you could not buy alcohol on that day,” she says. (Some websites state that the ban was repealed in the 1960s, while others say it wasn’t until the following decade.) 

Stack is perplexed as to how the day became associated with drinking, as she feels “The Irish community, in particular, has been very careful about the image that they portrayed on this day.” She does understand that the Irish “are kind of famous” for their “socializing culture, but it’s a little bit of a pity, that (the day) has been overshadowed.”

Witt says “people have always associated the Irish with drinking” Still, he stresses “not every stereotype is completely true.”

He believes the abundance of bars in places with large Irish populations, like New York City, Boston and Milwaukee, may be the answer. “When people celebrate they would go out and go to the bars, and this was a day for them to celebrate.”

Is St. Patrick’s Day big in Ireland?

Stack says the occasion is a big deal and is a family day.

“Now it’s a bank holiday so everybody gets the day off school and most of the businesses are closed.”

Why do we wear green on St. Patrick’s Day?

Fun fact: St. Patrick is tied to the color blue. So why do people cloak themselves in green?

“The Irish Americans would wear the green as a reminder that they were nationalists first and foremost,” explains Witt. “The colors of the Irish flag are green, white and orange, the green symbolizing the Irish nationalism, the orange symbolizing the Orangemen of the north and the white symbolizing peace.”

Stack mentions the mythical belief that green is to be worn to “make you invisible to leprechauns,” which she says originated in America.

Three attendees of Dublin's 2019 St. Patrick's Day parade in festive attire.

Is it offensive to wear orange on St. Patrick Day?

Stack advises against wearing the color. “Orange has been identified really with unionists or loyalists, people who are loyal to the British crown,” she says.

What do real Irish eat on St. Patrick’s Day? 

“We eat bacon and cabbage, not corned beef and cabbage,” says Stack. “The corned beef comes from America when the immigrants came over.” She says griddle potato farls and soda bread (likely without raisins) may also be a part of the spread.

Dyeing the Chicago River green is a St. Patrick’s Day tradition. How did it start?

The dyeing tradition became an annual thing nearly 60 years ago, in 1962, but its real origins go back even further. In the early days of his administration as Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley was a man on a mission to develop the city’s riverfront area. There was just one problem: The river itself was a sewage-filled eyesore. In order to get to the bottom of the city’s pollution problem and pinpoint the exact places where waste was being discarded into the waterway (and by whom), Daley authorized the pouring of a special green dye into the river that would allow them to see exactly where dumping was occurring.

Fast-forward to late 1961 when Stephen Bailey—part of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local, the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade chairman, and a childhood friend of Daley’s—witnessed a colleague’s green-soaked coveralls following a day of pouring Daley’s dye into the Chicago River. That gave Bailey an idea: If they could streak the Chicago River green, why not turn it all green?

Three months later, revelers got their first look at an Ecto Cooler-colored river when the city poured 100 pounds of the chemical into the water. They got a really good look, too, as the river remained green for an entire week.

Over the next several years, the same practice was repeated, and again it was carried out by the Plumbers Local. The only difference was that the amount of dye used was cut in half over the next two years until they finally arrived at the magic number: 25 pounds of dye = one day of green water.

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