Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March, traditionally marks the middle of spring, and is sometimes referred to as the end of winter, with the belief that there is a noticeable improvement in the weather from that date onwards; an old saying attributed to Saint Patrick claimed that the weather would be fine for half of his own feast day and for every day after. Saint Patrick’s Day holds great significance in rural areas of the country, partially due to the perceived improvement in the weather, but also because it is the traditional day for farmers to begin planting their crops, an older counterpart to this tradition linked Saint Patrick’s Day with the separation of farming families and may have encouraged the days connection with the commencement of work in the fields; Charles McGlinchey, from Ballyliffen in Donegal, recalled that in his grandfather’s time, circa 1800, ‘people in different parts of the parish used to take their cattle and pigs to the mountains in the summer months. It was only the women and children went, and Patrick’s Day was the time for setting out. They built huts to live in called bothógs and the remains of these bothógs and some old pig houses can be seen about the hills yet.’
Shamrocks have continued to be the most enduring and popular embalm to wear on Saint Patrick’s Day. Their association with the saint can be found in a well-known legend which tells of how Saint Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the holy trinity to the pagan Irish. Shamrocks are traditionally worn by both males and females on Saint Patrick’s Day, with females attaching cloisters of shamrocks to their right shoulder or breast, of the jacket or blouse they happen to be wearing, while for males the three leaf clovers were either worn on their hats or through the button-holes of their shirts and jackets. As an alternative to shamrocks Saint Patrick Crosses were previously worn in honour of the saint. These home-made crosses were traditionally constructed from a variety of materials including paper, card, silk, or satin, and typically were decorated with strips of ribbon and coloured paper. A short description of the construction of Saint Patrick’s Crosses was provided by John O’Hanlon in his 1870 work Irish Folk Lore; ‘usually composed of a card-paper, cut round, and covered with white silk or satin. Stripes of gay and party-coloured silk ribbon are crossed over this underwork, and elegantly fringed or tasselled, according to the wearer’s taste or fancy.’ St. Patrick’s Crosses continued to be worn on the clothing of females and children of both sexes into the early years of the twentieth century.
Despite always falling in Lent Saint Patrick’s Day seems to have been generally perceived as exempt from the fasting restrictions observed during Lentern period, with feasting often greater on Saint Patrick’s Day than on nearly any other day in the year. The Donegal writer Patrick MacGill recalled that when he was a child, at the end of the nineteenth century, Saint Patrick’s Day was one of four days in the year when meat was eaten in his Glenties household. As Saint Patrick’s Day marks the death of Saint Patrick it is hardly surprising that drinking on the day has remained as much of a feature of the day for centuries as it has at Irish wakes up until the present day. A special phrase to denote having a drink on Saint Patrick’s Day is Póta Padraig, translated to Patrick’s Pot, while the tradition of ‘Drowning the Shamrock’, involves the wearer removing the shamrock from the item of clothing, where it has been attached all day, and placing it in the last glass of whiskey, porter or stout at the end of evening. A toast is then made, and with the drink consumed, the shamrock is then thrown over the left shoulder to encourage luck.
As Saint Patrick is the primary patron saint of Ireland it is hardly surprising that a large number of traditions and customs are carried out on the 17 of March to venerate and celebrate the saint credited with converting the heathen Irish to Christianity and ridding the county of snakes. In recognition pilgrimages and patrons were once held on Saint Patrick’s Day to sites in nearly every part of the county. In 1923 the antiquarian Thomas J Westropp claimed that the greatest patterns were held on Caher Island and Croagh Patrick, in County Mayo, and at Downpatrick in County Down. The observances associated with Saint Patrick’s Day have increasingly become more concerned with celebrating Irishness than in venerating and celebrating the saint. This change has been gradual with parades, originally civic and in more recent decades carnivalesque, becoming the main feature of Saint Patrick’s Day in Irish towns and cities since the end of the nineteenth century.
Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.
MacGill, Patrick. Children of the Dead End: the Autobiography of a Navvy. London, 1914.
Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.
O’Donoghue, John. In Kerry Long Ago. London, 1960
O’Hanlon, John (Lageniensis). Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humorous Tales. London, 1870.
Omorethi. ‘Customs Peculiar to Certain Days, Previously Observed in County Kildare.’ Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts V (1906-1908), 439-454.