St. Patrick’s Day is a religious holiday, and it’s more.
March 17 marks the Feast Day of St. Patrick, famed for driving snakes out of Ireland. The 4th-century bishop went to Ireland as a missionary. He is remembered for using the shamrock to explain the concept of a triune God, with a leaf to represent the father, son and holy spirit.
St. Patrick’s Day is a secular holiday celebrated by many without religious ties. In Ireland and Northern Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday. That makes sense; Patrick is a patron saint of Ireland and a pivotal figure in Irish history.
Only two other nations recognize St. Patrick’s Day as an official holiday — Newfoundland and Montserrat. Both have histories of providing refuge to persecuted Irish Catholics.
U.S. history also is linked to significant Irish immigration; why isn’t St. Patrick’s Day a public holiday here too? There have been attempts to make St. Patrick’s Day a U.S. federal holiday.
Irish immigration to the United States was heavy during the mid-1800s, hitting a peak in the 1840s. At that time, Ireland had the highest population density of any European nation, according to the Library of Congress. Poverty and food shortages drove Irish Catholics to the United States.
Our modern understanding of what it means to be Irish is, arguably, influenced by those of Irish heritage living in the United States. Ireland, too, was forever changed by what became a transatlantic exchange. Likewise, Ireland is integral to American culture. That is, we are influenced by what we gained from the influx of Ireland’s young people.
“The Irish” stood out in America, and seldom because they wanted to. Although “white” in appearance, they were viewed as “different.” They were segregated into slums and sometimes referred to as a “race.” They were greeted with signs reading “Help Wanted: Irish Need Not Apply” and relegated to demeaning, dangerous jobs.
They persevered. They maintained national Irish pride, keeping traditions they merged into U.S. culture.
A result may be the modern version of St. Patrick’s Day is an American export, historian Michael Cronin told Time magazine. Celebrations became popular here because Irish immigrants asserted their cultural and political presence in American society, he explained.
St. Patrick’s Day parades, for example, have been popular in American cities since the 1800s. In Dublin, where Cronin lives, such events didn’t start until the 1990s.
Today, St. Patrick’s Day takes on its own look and feel in each community that celebrates it, seldom reserved for Catholics or ethnically Irish people. St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish holiday celebrated by people of many cultures and ethnic backgrounds. (Patrick was probably Scottish and definitely a Roman citizen.) Time calls it “the most global national holiday.”
In the United States, making St. Patrick’s Day a federal or public holiday would probably result in things like closing government offices and no mail delivery. It also could mean a break for some businesses, schools and financial markets.
I’m not a proponent of another shortened work/school week. A desire to be a stronger, more successful nation doesn’t mesh with the casual pastime of chasing days off.
However, Irish contributions to U.S. culture deserve their due. Perhaps a federal holiday would provide more opportunities to teach about the United States’ considerable links to Irish history and culture.