National Geographic Daily News
Cheryl Hodge leans out into the street as she and several others blow bubbles as the annual Savannah St. Patrick's Day Parade moves along Abercorn Street on Saturday March 16, 2013 in Savannah, Ga.

Revelers blow bubbles at the St. Patrick's Day parade in Savannah, Georgia, in 2013.

PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD BURKHART, AP  

John Roach

National Geographic

Published March 14, 2014

St. Patrick's Day and its promise of spring is an especially welcome relief for millions of Americans who have suffered through one of the coldest winters in recent memory.

In fact, in early March, St. Patrick's Day Parade organizers in Chicago were worried that the thaw might arrive too late for the city's greenest tradition of all—the dyeing of the Chicago River into a brilliant emerald hue, which will take place this year on March 17. (Read about the top ten St. Patrick's Day celebrations.)

"There was ice on the river right around the area where the dyeing takes place," said Kevin Sherlock, a parade organizer with the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local 130, which has run the event for 59 years.

Temperatures have warmed enough to break up the ice-choked stretch of river through downtown, and members of the plumbers union will be out in their skiffs on Saturday, March 15, to help dye the river.

In New York City, where the country's largest and oldest parade will be held on Monday, the streets will be snow free too, though temperatures are forecast to be in the mid-30s, so the advice is to dress warmly.

Elsewhere along the East Coast, parades from Boston to Savannah, Georgia, may come with a nip in the air but a spring in the step of everyone from bagpipers to flag twirlers.

"Spring is right around the corner when you go to St. Patrick's Day," noted Sherlock, who added that the Chicago parade has been held in weather anywhere from 0 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 to 28 degrees Celsius). (See National Geographic's pictures of spring.)

"Weather is weather," he said. "There is nothing you can really do about it; just dress for it."

Members of the Emerald Isle Step Dancers, from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania,  make their way up New York's Fifth Avenue as they take part in the St. Patrick's Day Parade Saturday,  March 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)
PHOTOGRAPH BY TINA FINEBERG, AP
Members of the Emerald Isle Step Dancers perform in New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade in 2013.

Who Was the Man Behind St. Patrick's Day?

Bundled up or skimpily clad, few of the revelers lining parade routes and filling Irish pubs have a clue about St. Patrick, the historical figure, according to the author of St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography.

"The modern celebration of St. Patrick's Day really has almost nothing to do with the real man," classics professor Philip Freeman, of Luther College in Iowa, said in 2009. (Take an Ireland quiz.)

For starters, the real St. Patrick wasn't even Irish. He was born in Britain around A.D. 390 to an aristocratic Christian family that owned a townhouse, a country villa, and plenty of slaves.

What's more, Patrick professed no interest in Christianity as a young boy, Freeman noted.

At 16, Patrick's world was turned upside down: He was kidnapped and sent overseas to tend sheep as a slave for seven years in the chilly, mountainous countryside of Ireland. (See Ireland pictures.)

"It was just horrible for him," Freeman said. "But he got a religious conversion while he was there and became a very deeply believing Christian."

St. Patrick's Disembodied Voices

According to folklore, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family.

The voice then told him to go back to Ireland.

"He gets ordained as a priest from a bishop, and goes back and spends the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity," Freeman said.

Patrick's work in Ireland was tough—he was constantly being beaten by thugs, harassed by Irish royalty, and admonished by his British superiors. After he died on March 17, 461, Patrick was largely forgotten.

But slowly, mythology grew around Patrick, and centuries later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland, Freeman noted. (Related: "St. Patrick's Day Fast Facts: Beyond the Blarney.")

Is Your Shamrock Real or Bogus?

According to St. Patrick's Day lore, Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the Christian holy trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Today, St. Patrick's Day revelers wear a shamrock. Trifolium dubium, the wild-growing, three-leaf clover that some botanists consider the official shamrock, is an annual plant that germinates in the spring.

Other three-leaf clovers, such as the perennials Trifolium repens and Medicago lupulina, are "bogus shamrocks," according to the Irish Times.

John Parnell, a botanist at Trinity College in Dublin, said in 2010 that Trifolium dubium is the most commonly used shamrock today, which lends credence to the claims of authenticity.

However, he added, the custom of wearing a shamrock dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and "I know of no evidence to say what people then used. I think the argument on authenticity is purely academic—basically I'd guess they used anything cloverlike then."

What's more, botanists say there's nothing uniquely Irish about shamrocks. Most clover species can be found throughout Europe.

No Snakes in Ireland

Another St. Patrick myth is the claim that he banished snakes from Ireland. It's true no snakes exist on the island today, Luther College's Freeman said—but they never did.

Ireland, after all, is surrounded by icy waters—much too cold to allow snakes to migrate from Britain or anywhere else.

Since snakes often represent evil in literature, "when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland [and] brought in a new age," Freeman said.

The snake myth, the shamrock story, and other tales were likely spread by well-meaning monks centuries after St. Patrick's death, Freeman said.

St. Patrick's Day: Made in America?

Until the 1970s, St. Patrick's Day in Ireland was a minor religious holiday. A priest would acknowledge the feast day, and families would celebrate with a big meal, but that was about it.

"St. Patrick's Day was basically invented in America by Irish-Americans," Freeman said.

Timothy Meagher, an expert in Irish-American history at Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University, said in 2009 Irish charitable organizations originally celebrated St. Patrick's Day with banquets in places such as Boston, Savannah, and Charleston, South Carolina.

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.

"It becomes a way to honor the saint but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity," said Meagher.

A spectator looks on as the Chicago River is dyed green ahead of the St. Patrick's Day parade in Chicago, Saturday, March, 16, 2013. With the holiday itself falling on a Sunday, many celebrations were scheduled  for Saturday because of religious observances. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL BEATY, AP
A spectator watches as people dye the Chicago River green ahead of the city's St. Patrick's Day parade in 2013.

Dyeing the River Green for St. Patrick's Day

Sometime in the 19th century, as St. Patrick's Day parades were flourishing, wearing the color green became a show of commitment to Ireland, Meagher said.

In 1962 the show of solidarity took a spectacular turn in Chicago when the city decided to dye a portion of the Chicago River green.

The tradition started when parade organizer Steve Bailey, head of a plumbers union, noticed how a dye used to trace possible sources of river pollution had stained a colleague's overalls a brilliant green, according to greenchicagoriver.com.

Bailey thought, Why not use the dye to turn the whole river green on St. Patrick's Day? So began the tradition.

The environmental impact of the dye is minimal compared with pollution from sewage-treatment plants, Margaret Frisbie, the executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Chicago River, said in 2010.

Rather than advising against the dye, her group focuses on turning the Chicago River into a welcoming habitat full of fish, herons, turtles, and beavers. If the river becomes a wildlife haven, the thinking goes, Chicagoans won't want to dye their river green.

"Our hope is that, as the river continues to improve, ultimately people can get excited about celebrating St. Patrick's Day different ways," she said.

30 comments
Conor Spain
Conor Spain

Despite all the commotion around St.Patrick's Day, there are actually two patron saints of Ireland. St. Patrick (of course) and the largely forgotten St.Brigid.

Brigid played a key role in early Irish Christianity and her day on February 1st marks the start of Spring. Whats more, Brigid was actually Irish and she was born in County Meath. She reputedly founded the first church in Ireland. Brigid is still remembered in Irish Primary schools with children making St.Brigid's Crosses using reeds.

As we say in Ireland,

Lá Fhéile Phádraig Shona

Happy St.Patrick's Day

James Patrick
James Patrick

Another thought about St. Patrick and the snakes is that it may rather refer to the druids who lost influence with the spread of Christianity.

Joan Bennett
Joan Bennett

To Mike Hill ..... correct me if I'm wrong but isn't "Hill "an English surname? I am a Bennett and my grandfather came from county Cork just after the first world war and we have always celebrated St. Patrick's Day.

Mike Hill
Mike Hill

Doesn't anyone realize being a Saint is a Catholic Honor not the generalized Christian holiday. More people proclaim they are Irish in America than Irish people who live in Ireland.


Sorry I am mainly Irish and most my family is from Ireland but I do not follow the whole "Saint Patrick's Day" thing because I am not Christian or Catholic. It would be an insult or Mockery of Catholic Religion. As well as why do I need a reason to drink. If I want to consume alcohol, I will just drink when I feel I want to.

jim 2509
jim 2509

Actually it was British/Irish Protestant Troops within the British Army that first celebrated St Patricks Day in British Colonial America...get your history right.

jim 2509
jim 2509

Actually it was British/Irish Protestant Troops within the British Army that first celebrated St Patricks Day in British Colonial America...get your history right.

mary meile
mary meile

Thank you for providing facts on the background of St. Patrick. I was looking for valid information to share with my 5 1/2 year old grandson. The public school has taught him that St. Patrick's Day represents green leprechauns and plenty of magic; nothing about Patrick's real plight and how he had an encounter from God that changed his and others lives; even for eternity! 

Phillip Lake
Phillip Lake

Sounds like just another reason for Catholics and their unknown friends to get drunk just like Mardi Gras. In Mardi Gras you raise pure hell for two weeks and live like hell then on Fat Tuesday you go to church and ask God to forgive you. The only problem is the vast majority forget the part of asking for forgiveness. Human beings deciding who becomes a "Saint" and humans make up the guidelines for who gets that honor. Most people don't even know who Patrick was.

Elske Dijkstra
Elske Dijkstra

It's foolish! The article was good and great facts!

Delores Newsome
Delores Newsome

The preceding article is a good capsule of the origin and meaning of St. Pat's day.

Dane Rios
Dane Rios

Legend has it that Niall of the Nine Hostages, Niall Noígíallach, was responsible for Patrick's kidnapping. Niall was an ancestor of the Ui Neill Clan, (O'Neill) of Ulster in Northern Ireland.

Sheila Mickey
Sheila Mickey

Maybe dying the river green will prompt the inquisitive to learn more about "Who is the man behind St. Patty's Day"....and the God-Man he came to believe in after being kidnapped and serving as a slave in Ireland for 7 years.....THAT IS WORTH TURNING THE RIVER GREEN!

Steve Marcos
Steve Marcos

Dying the river green is so good for the environment. But hey it's the US of A, what does anyone care?

catherine nordloh
catherine nordloh

who ever did fact-checking on this artice is off on a few things, one of them being that the Chicago River dying happened today, March 15th, not the 17th.

Dávid G.
Dávid G.

@Mike Hill  While I understand where you coming from, he is not just a Catholic saint. Saint Patrick is also an Eastern Orthodox saint, Eastern Catholic saint, Anglican saint, and Lutheran saint. Essentially, all western and most eastern Christians that have a "saint culture" honor Saint Patrick. Saint Patrick was also an early leader of the "Celtic Christian" Church, which was at one time a recognized separate entity with in the Catholic faith (like Eastern Rite Catholics today).

For Americans, it is an opportunity to remember our family's past within our multicultural heritage. A large number of Americans have Celtic blood to some degree (we are all mutts after all), and it has provided many of us a connection to our past. I have celebrated Saint Patrick's day as an experience of Irish culture through a traditional feast since I was very young. And sure, many people use it as an excuse to get drunk, but that is not the mainstream view of this holiday.

Diane Campbell
Diane Campbell

There is something wrong with people like you.. And Im a Campbell. It doesnt get much more Irish. And the only thing insulting is your comment.  Why is it that all of you liberal politically correct things need to  pooh pooh every tradition and custom ??  What is insulting? The parade? The tradition and heritage behind it?

If you want to be drink go for it. If you dont .....DONT. If you chose not to be Catholic who cares. Some of us love the parade, and being Catholic. If you dont want to be a catholic or christian dont be one. You can be or not be what ever you want.

This is not the only parade, celebration or event that people drink at. It happens for every event4th of July, Labor Day Memorial Day, NY Eve, SO what if people like to celebrate?  People drink because they drink nobody drinks because its St Patriks Day because they do it on every holiday that we celabrate in America.

Why dont you get your friends and form a coalition and try to ban the parade because it insults you and join the rest of the libturd idiots crapping all over our traditions and bringing people down. This is tradition and Im damn proud of it.  Thats the problem with people today. People like you who crap all over traditions and family values and customs. Everything is insulting and appauling to ou. Who cares. Dont drink, dont go to the parade and dont be religious. Just leave the rest of us alone.

Sheila Mickey
Sheila Mickey

The environmental impact of the dye is minimal compared with pollution from sewage-treatment plants, Margaret Frisbie, the executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Chicago River, said in 2010.

Paul D.
Paul D.

Sorry but Campbell is a Scottish name. There are some Irish conections with it, but it's generally Scottish. So unfortunately it does get more Irish than that.

Share

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

Latest News Video

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »