Saint Patrick’s Day Folklore

Friday Folklore

For February, I focused on Australian folklore. For March, however, I want to look at Irish folklore and that means starting with Saint Patrick. Most people can’t think of Ireland without also thinking of this historical figure and the day that celebrates him.

Who is Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick's DaySaint Patrick is a Catholic saint who is a cultural hero in Ireland…and he’s not even Irish.

Born in Scotland (one source says his father was a Roman noble), he was kidnapped by Irish marauders when he was sixteen. The marauders sold him as a slave to an Irish chieftain. He spent six years as a shepherd before escaping and returning home. He went on to study the Christian faith in Italy and France, where he was eventually ordained a bishop in 432 AD (or, CE if that abbreviation is your preference).

Now a bishop, the former slave returned to Ireland to minister to the isolated communities. Because of his previous captivity there, he knew enough about Irish culture to relate to the people. He used symbols and traditions the Irish knew and loved to make Christianity make sense for them. The most famous example of this regards the shamrock, which he used to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. The shamrock is now the most popular symbol associated with Saint Patrick.

Obviously, he wasn’t the first missionary to Ireland but he was the most successful. So successful, in fact, that he’s known as the Apostle of Ireland. He died on March 17, 461 in Saul, Ireland. Now, people remember this holy man by drinking green beer and wearing silly hats.

Deliver Us from Snakes

The most popular myth also explains why there are no snakes in Ireland. The story goes that, during a forty day fast, the bishop was attacked by snakes upon a hill. In Christian lore, the snake is associated with evil, so it makes sense that a holy man would be attacked by them.

Patrick responded by driving the snakes into the sea. Religious art sometimes depict him in that action or have snakes under his feet.

In reality, snakes have never existed in Ireland. It’s likely that Ireland is simply too cold to support the reptiles. The story was likely invented to demonstrate the holiness of Ireland’s Apostle.

The Lore of the Day

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade occurred not in Ireland but in the US and was held by Irish soldiers serving in the British Army. Because of the number of Irish immigrants in New York, the parade continued and now one can’t really imagine the holiday without it.

Aside from that, however, the day is also associated with leprechauns, the color green, and corned beef and cabbage.

The Color Green

Were you pinched as a child because you forgot to wear green to school on March 17th? I was. I want to own a shirt that says, “Pinch Me and Die” because of all I endured in elementary school.

Blue was originally the color associated with this holy man. However, Ireland is known as the “Emerald Isle”, so green became associated with the day. It’s also believed that green makes you invisible to leprechauns. And if they can’t see you, they can’t pinch you. So, I suppose whoever pinches you takes the role of a leprechaun.

Interestingly, in Ireland, Catholics will wear green and Protestants will wear orange on this day. This is reflected in the Irish flag: the green represents Catholics, orange the Protestants, and the white is the peace between them.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

It is customary on this day to eat an Irish dish of corned beef and cabbage. Like the parade, however, this also originated in New York City.

Irish immigrants had to settle for beef brisket because it was cheap. Using a method of brining meat they picked up from Eastern Europeans, the beef was cooked and preserved. “Corned” simply refers to the size of the salt crystals used in the process.

Cabbage was also very cheap, so it became a logical side dish. For poor Irish immigrants who couldn’t afford bacon or other choice meats, this low cost combination became the dish for the day.

If you’re not wild about either of these options, CatholicCulture.Org has a recipe for a yummy cake.

St. Patrick’s Blessing

I usually like to end the Friday Folklore with a story or a song. While he’s known for a special poem-prayer, let me end with a blessing supposedly uttered by the Apostle of Ireland:

A blessing on the Munster people —
Men, youths, and women;
A blessing on the land
That yields them fruit.

A blessing on every treasure
That shall be produced on their plains,
Without any one being in want of help,
God’s blessing be on Munster.

A blessing on their peaks,
On their bare flagstones,
A blessing on their glens,
A blessing on their ridges.

Like the sand of the sea under ships,
Be the number in their hearths;
On slopes, on plains,
On mountains, on hills, a blessing.


“St. Patrick of Ireland”, Catholic News Agency,

“St. Patrick”, Catholic Encyclopedia,

“Did St. Patrick Really Drive Snakes Out of Ireland?”, James Owen,

“First St. Patrick’s Day Parade”, History Channel,

“Why Do You Wear Green on St. Patrick’s Day?”, LA Times

“St. Patrick’s Day 2014: Facts, Myths, Traditions”, John Roach,

“St. Patrick’s Day History And Traditions: The Meaning Behind Corned Beef And Cabbage And These 5 Irish Customs”, Philip Ross,

Also published on Medium.

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