St. Patrick's Day: Fact vs. Fiction

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
March 15, 2004

The celebration of St. Patrick's Day in the United States may bring to mind images of parades, beer, and partygoers decked out in green.

Bridget Haggerty, though, remembers marking St. Patrick's Day very differently. A 41-year U.S. resident who was born to Irish parents in England, Haggerty is the author of The Traditional Irish Wedding and the Web site Irish Culture and Customs.

As a child in England during the 1950s, Haggerty remembers that her expatriate Irish family would receive a package from her mother's relatives back in Dublin before each St. Patrick's Day. The package contained live shamrock and small cardboard badges emblazoned with a golden harp, a symbol of Ireland.

Family members would each pin a sprig of shamrock on their clothes, and Haggerty and her two brothers would wear the greenery along with their harp badges to school on St. Patrick's Day.

"If the budget allowed it, I'd have a green ribbon in my hair. But that was the only green we wore," said Haggerty, who now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

This seems a stark contrast to the fields of green decorations, hats, and clothes found in the United States. While no one can confirm with certainty why wearing so much green became popular, there is a very good reason, according to the Irish, not to do so, Haggerty said.

According to superstition, the color green was thought to bring bad luck because it was the favorite color of the fairy folk. "As a matter of fact," Haggerty said, "you should never say the fairies. They hate it! The Good People is the right term to use."

The Good People were unpredictable, according to Irish folklore, and were known to steal people away—especially children—who enticed fairy folk by wearing too much of their favorite color.

Irish Festival

Today Americans appear willing to take this risk. And it seems the Irish are beginning to follow suit. Dublin now holds a weeklong festival that culminates on St. Patrick's Day, said Haggerty.

Christina Mahony, acting director of Catholic University's Center for Irish Studies in Washington, D.C., has noticed the changes as well. About 15 years ago, Mahony said, marching bands, big parades, and other trappings of "American glitz" were "unheard of" in the Irish capital, Mahony said.

In Ireland, St. Patricks Day was traditionally a Catholic feast day and a holy day of obligation. People had the day off from work, went to Mass, and had a family meal together. "There was a religiousness about it, a sanctity about it," Mahony said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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