National Geographic News
On St. Patrick's Day this Friday, some revelers will raise a pint of stout and wish their companions "Slainté!"the Irish word, pronounced SLAN-cha, for "health."
The toast may brim with scientific truth. At a meeting of the American Heart Association in Orlando, Florida, three years ago, researchers reported that Guinness may be as effective as daily aspirin in reducing the blood clots that cause heart attacks. (The benefit derives from antioxidants, which the researchers said reduce cholesterol deposits on arterial walls. The compounds are found in dark Irish stouts but not their paler cousins.)
In the spirit of the holiday, National Geographic News rustled up other facts related to St. Patrick's Day festivities. Take heartwe skipped the blarney.
St. Patrick's Day marks the Roman Catholic feast day for Ireland's patron saint, who died in the 5th century. St. Patrick (Patricius in Latin) was not born in Ireland, but in Britain.
Irish brigands kidnapped St. Patrick at 16 and brought him to Ireland. He was sold as a slave in the county of Antrim and served in bondage for six years until he escaped to Gaul, in present-day France. He later returned to his parents' home in Britain, where he had a vision that he would preach to the Irish. After 14 years of study, Patrick returned to Ireland, where he built churches and spread the Christian faith for some 30 years.
Many myths surround St. Patrick. One of the best knownand most inaccurateis that Patrick drove all the snakes from Ireland into the Irish Sea, where the serpents drowned. (Some still say that is why the sea is so rough.)
But snakes have never been native to the Emerald Isle. The serpents were likely a metaphor for druidic religions, which steadily disappeared from Ireland in the centuries after St. Patrick planted the seeds of Christianity on the island.
In the United States, it's customary to wear green on St. Patrick's Day. But in Ireland the color was long considered to be unlucky, says Bridget Haggerty, author of The Traditional Irish Wedding and the Irish Culture and Customs Web site.
As Haggerty explains, Irish folklore holds that green is the favorite color of the Good People (the proper name for faeries). They are likely to steal people, especially children, who wear too much of the color.
Colonial New York City hosted the first official St. Patrick's Day parade in 1762, when Irish immigrants in the British colonial army marched down city streets. In subsequent years Irish fraternal organizations also held processions to St. Patrick's Cathedral. The various groups merged sometime around 1850 to form a single, grand parade.
Today New York's St. Patrick's Day parade is the longest running civilian parade in the world. This year nearly three million spectators are expected to watch the spectacle and some 150,000 participants plan to march.
Dublin's St. Patrick's Day parade is little more than 75 years old. This year festival organizers will launch 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of fireworks to cap their celebration, which is expected to draw 400,000 spectators.