Snakes, leprechauns and pots of gold: Why do we celebrate St Patrick's Day?

Don your green, grab a Guinness and get ready for a post-festivity drunken stupor — it’s St Patrick’s Day.

But who was St Patrick, and why do we celebrate all things Irish on March 17?

WHO WAS ST PATRICK?

Although considered the patron saint of Ireland, contrary to popular belief, St Patrick was not Irish, nor was his name Patrick.

In the late 300s AD, “Patrick” was born in the Britain town of Banna Venta Berniae. Evidently, his birth name ‘Maewyn Succat’ was not to his pleasing and over the years he adopted many aliases including Magonus, Succetus, Cothirthiacus and Patricius. The last of his pseudonyms was later morphed into Patrick, a name now closely linked to Irish culture.

A towering monument to Ireland's patron saint St Patrick stands at Cork, Ireland.

A towering monument to Ireland’s patron saint St Patrick stands at Cork, Ireland.Source:News Corp Australia

Although he was raised by a Christian father, St Patrick rejected religion. Or he did until Irish pirates captured and enslaved him. After six years of being forced to work as a shepherd, Patrick converted to Christianity.

While in Ireland, Patrick learnt to speak Irish and was immersed in the culture. However, it wasn’t long before he sought to flee the country and return to Britain.

His ventures were unsuccessful, once again getting captured — this time, by the French.

Eventually he was released and finally returned home where he continued to study Christianity.

After a vision told him that his mission in life was to introduce Christianity to the Irish, Patrick packed his bags once more and set his sights on Ireland.

Initially, his teachings weren’t well received and he was forced to relocate to a small island off the mainland. It was here where he began to amass followers.

Eventually moving back to the mainland, Patrick continued preaching Christian ideals and, before his death on March 17, 461AD, had baptised thousands and helped form hundreds of churches.

Legend says St Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland, however, this has been discredited as a myth.

Keeper of national history at the National Museum of Ireland Nigel Monaghan told National Geographic that there was no evidence the saint was behind Ireland’s lack of slithering creatures. In fact, fossil collections and animal records indicate snakes never inhabited the country in the first place.

Seeing shamrocks everywhere? St Patrick is the guy to blame.

Seeing shamrocks everywhere? St Patrick is the guy to blame.Source:Supplied

St Patrick, however, may have been the one to popularise the three-leafed shamrock. In his pursuits to spread Christianity, it’s rumoured he adopted the symbol to communicate ideals of the Holy Trinity — The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit — to people of Ireland.

In Celtic mythology, the number three was a sacred number, a reference to the often depicted triple aspect of Irish gods and goddesses, as well as the ancient triple spiral “triskele” symbol. Patrick’s usage of the shamrock and number three may have helped gain favour with the Irish throughout his conversion endeavours.

WHY DO WE CELEBRATE ST PATRICK’S DAY?

St Patrick’s Day began as a religious holiday known as “Feast Day”. The festival was held on the anniversary on Patrick’s death and celebrated the life of the patron saint, chiefly for his introduction of Christianity to Ireland.

As more people began to migrate to America from Ireland, the festivities swelled. Over time, these celebrations overflowed to other countries. Before too long, St Patrick’s Day became a holiday integrated into cultures around the globe, including Australia where Sydney hosts a festival and parade.

They’re not drunks — they’re just excited St Paddy’s Day revellers.

They’re not drunks — they’re just excited St Paddy’s Day revellers.Source:News Corp Australia

WHY DO WE WEAR GREEN?

On St Patrick’s Day, it’s tradition to wear green. Those who don’t unenviably face the punishment from friends and strangers alike in the form of pinching.

The verdant ritual stems from Irish folklore. According to legend, leprechauns are known to be devilish tricksters, adept at sneaking up and pinching unsuspecting revellers. Wearing green, however, renders a person invisible to the Irish creature, thus protecting from the physical abuse.

There are also political roots to the outfit choice too. As Paul Finnegan, Executive Director of the New York Irish Center, explains, green attire is symbolic of the Irish Republicanism movement from the 18th century which saw the nation achieve independence.

When Irish soldiers battled against Britain, they wore green to oppose the Brit’s red and reportedly sang The Wearing of the Green. In homage to Ireland’s history, Irish ex-pats in America donned green to celebrate their heritage. Nowadays, regardless of history, people around the globe take part.

However, few cities’ festivities can contend with Chicago’s dedication to the green tradition.

Each year, to usher in St Patrick’s Day, Chicago dyes the city’s major river a bold leprechaun green.

Members of the plumbers' union dye the Chicago River green for St Patrick's Day.

Members of the plumbers’ union dye the Chicago River green for St Patrick’s Day.Source:AFP

However, the origin of this spectacle shared no ideological ties to St Patrick’s Day, nor the holiday’s namesake.

In 1961, Chicago’s mayor, who coincidentally was Irish American, viewed the city’s riverfront as prime real estate. Only one problem stood in the way of a booming area: the river was contaminated by sewage.

In an effort to locate the source of pollution which turned the river into an eyesore, Mayor Richard J. Daley devised the plan to pour green dye into the water to track waste movements.

Upon witnessing the dyeing process, a close friend and colleague of Daley suggested turning the entire river green to celebrate the Irish holiday.

As a part-Irish man, Daley embraced the idea. To this day, every morning on March 17, the river is dyed to kick off St Patrick’s Day.

Continue the conversation on Twitter at @mikejxmes or via email at mike.cook@news.com.au