St. Patrick (387 – 461) is one of Ireland’s patron saints. Ironically, he was born in Britain somewhere south of Hadrian’s Wall. He was kidnapped and enslaved by Irish pagans while still a teenager. After escaping, he studied at different monasteries and became a priest. Pope Celestine I sent Patrick to Ireland as a missionary.
At that time, the Irish followed pagan religious traditions, and Patrick sometimes ran afoul of the druids, who were the resident religious leaders. Patrick eventually made headway, and Ireland’s first cathedral and primatial see were built in Armagh by 444. While King Laoghaire (reigned 428 – 458) did not convert to Christianity, some of his children did.
Patrick worked in Ireland for not quite 30 years. He traveled the country and baptized new converts and ordained priests. He also oversaw the construction of monasteries and schools. When he was older, he wrote the autobiography “Confessions.” He died on March 17, 461 and was buried in what is now Northern Island.
The Irish had started to celebrate March 17 as a combination of national day and feast day for St. Patrick by the 9th or 10th century. Luke Wadding (1588 – 1657) was a Franciscan scholar from Waterford, Ireland, and he wanted the Catholic Church to make St. Patrick’s Day an official part of the liturgical calendar, which they did sometime in the 17th century. The Church, however, will change the date if March 17 falls within Holy Week. For example, they held St. Patrick’s Day on March 15 in 2008.
Other churches, including the Church of Ireland, Lutheran Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, also declared St. Patrick’s Day to be a feast day. The churches treated St. Patrick’s Day as a time to celebrate the arrival of Christianity to Ireland and honor Irish culture. As a result, the holiday spread throughout Europe.
When Europeans, especially the Irish, settled in places like North America and Australia, they brought their traditions with them – including St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. The first known St. Patrick’s Day parade, for example, took place in 1762 in New York City. There, Irish soldiers serving in the British military marched through the city streets. Their parade allowed them to celebrate their musical traditions and otherwise reconnect with their roots.
Over the next few decades, parades on St. Patrick’s Day gradually became a tradition as Irish immigrants expressed pride in their culture. Many participants played bagpipes. In 1848, several groups got together to form one official New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade. That parade is still held today and now has around 150,000 participants, which makes it the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the US and the largest civilian parade in the world.
Today, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated all over the world. It has even been celebrated onboard the International Space Station. In 2011, Catherine Coleman, an American astronaut with Irish ancestry, played a flute and a tin whistle belonging to an Irish musical group called the Chieftains. Two years later, the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield honored the holiday by wearing green and taking pictures of Ireland. He also posted a recording of himself singing “Danny Boy.”