Why has St Patrick’s Day become a drinkathon?

We don’t seem to bother much with St David’s Day. A lot of people don’t even know when St Andrew’s Day is. And if there is some suggestion that we should do more to celebrate St George's Day it is met with a collective intake of breath and response that the English don’t do that sort of thing. Yet there’s at least one night when we do. St Patrick’s Day has become a byword for alcoholic excess. It’s the evening when everyone is suddenly Irish and this alone is an excuse to down ten pints of Guinness, drape yourself in an Irish flag and behave as if its Xmas and New Year on the same day! Why has this happened and who the jiggins was St Patrick anyway? 

Appropriately enough, like most of the people who celebrate St Patrick’s Day, the man himself wasn’t actually Irish at all and it turns out he seems to have penned most of his story himself in a document called `Declaration`. Patrick’s real name was the less memorable Maewyn Succat and he lived in the fifth century. He was born into a Roman- British family. At the age of sixteen he had been kidnapped and made a slave in Ireland working as a shepherd and it was during this period he said he found God.

In his self written bio, Patrick claims that after escaping he returned to Ireland to convert the Irish to Christianity. He is said to have baptized thousands of people as well as ordaining new priests and helped with the setting up of over 300 churches though oddly no pubs. The shamrock became such a symbol of the country after Patrick used it to illustrate the idea of the Holy Trinity.

The celebration – commemorating the day Patrick died on 17 March 461 AD – started as a purely religious festival in the seventeenth century called Feast Day. It wasn’t until the early eighteenth century when Irish immigrants took the tradition to America that St Patrick really started to become the symbol of Ireland. From 1903 Feast Day became an Irish national holiday and evolved over the decades to become St Patrick’s Day.

As for the drinking, the day seems to have become focussed on alcohol as it occurs during Lent when Christians traditionally abstain from alcohol. These restrictions were lifted for the day and gradually the idea that you should spend St Patricks Day drinking as much alcohol as possible became prevalent. This is much more of a recent development however, from the 1970’s onwards. Prior to that a lot of pubs actually remained closed on the day.

Modern St Patrick’s Day is an odd amalgam of appropriated Irish culture mixed with partying and in all probability few celebrating are aware of Patrick’s story. Around city centres at this time are lots of pubs with windows covered in green penned calls to join in their St Paddy’s Day Craic and filled with Oirish ephemera to add a dash of authenticity. Its actually the one night of the year its probably best not to go out unless you’re participating. Greetings card shops have even got in on the act with repeated attempts to encourage people to buy St Patrick's Day cards but this is one thing that doesn’t seem to have caught on.

Imagine if we did do a St George’s Day equivalent? Would people get dressed up in white and red? Would gangs of loud people get together for high tea and scones? Probably not. This year St Patrick’s Day is on a Sunday so might it be a bit restrained? Oh no because a lot of places are advertising a St Patrick’s weekend!

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