Mar 15, 2022

The Myths of St. Patrick’s Day

Many people of Irish ancestry love to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. on March 17. After all, it is a great way to celebrate one’s Irish heritage. However, some of the celebrations are a bit questionable. In fact, many of the commonly-held beliefs about St. Patrick are wrong. Before making plans, you might want to consider a few facts:

St. Patrick wasn’t Irish

Patrick was probably born in what is now England, Scotland or Wales around A.D. 390. Different historians have different beliefs about his date and place of birth. After all, the borders moved a bit over the years as well. Most agree that St. Patrick’s parents were Roman citizens living in the British Isles. Therefore, Patrick himself was a Roman citizen even though he was born somewhere in what is now Great Britain.

At the age of 16 he was enslaved by Irish raiders who attacked his home. He was held in captivity in Ireland for six years. Patrick later fled to England, where he received religious instruction before returning to Ireland to serve as a missionary.

St. Patrick did not bring Christianity to Ireland

Christianity was introduced into Ireland by a bishop known as Palladius before Patrick began preaching in Ireland. However, St. Patrick apparently had more success at converting the Irish to Christianity than did Palladius.

St. Patrick did not banish snakes from the Emerald Isle

Legend has it that Patrick stood on an Irish hillside and delivered a sermon that drove the island’s serpents into the sea. While it’s true that the Emerald Isle is snake-free, it appears that had been true for thousands of years. Nobody has ever found even a fossil of a snake in Ireland. The assumption is that the waters surrounding the Irish isle are much too cold for cold-blooded snakes to survive the long swim.

Green historically is not associated with St. Patrick’s Day

The Irish countryside may be many shades of green, but knights in the Order of St. Patrick wore a color known as St. Patrick’s blue.

Green has been used by supporters of Irish independence who used the color to represent their cause in the 18th century and later. Indeed, green is often used to denote Ireland today but that has nothing to do with St. Patrick.

The Irish shamrock has THREE leaves, not four.

The original shamrock was used by St. Patrick to explain the Holy Trinity was probably hop clover (trifolium minus), white clover (trifolium repens), wood sorrel (oxalis acetosella) or the black medic (medicago lupulina). All of those plants have three leaves. The plant commonly sold nowadays as shamrock is usually trifolium minus, a small yellow-flowered clover with four leaves.

St. Patrick’s Day is not a time for festivities

Until the 1700s, St. Patrick’s Day was a Roman Catholic feast only observed in Ireland. The faithful spent the relatively somber occasion in quiet prayer at church or at home. The custom of revelry, wearing green and even of drinking green beer was first introduced by Irish immigrants and descendants living in the United States. The customs were later exported to Ireland and to many other counties. In the last few decades, Irish tourist boards have heavily publicized March 17 as a day for festivities.

Corned beef is not a classic St. Patrick’s Day dish nor even an Irish dish.

In Ireland, corned beef has always been a rarity. Instead, a type of bacon similar to ham is more common. According to Irish Cultures and Customs at, “The truth is, that for many Irish people, Corned Beef is too ‘poor’ or plain to eat on a holiday: they’d sooner make something more festive.” Certainly, there will be many restaurants in Ireland that will be serving Corned Beef and Cabbage on March 17th , but most of them will be doing so just to please the tourists.

In the late 19th century, Irish immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side supposedly substituted corned beef, which they bought from their Jewish neighbors, in order to save money. However, cabbage is certainly a common Irish ingredient in many meals.

The traditional St. Patrick’s day parade is not traditional, at least not in Ireland.

The first documented St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York City, not in Ireland. Eighteenth-century Irish soldiers fighting with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War held the first St. Patrick’s Day parades. Some soldiers, for example, marched through New York City in 1762 to reconnect with their Irish roots.

Other parades followed in the years and decades after, including well-known celebrations in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, primarily in flourishing Irish immigrant communities.

And then there is the green beer…

No, it isn’t Irish either.