History of St. Patrick’s Day - Professor Patrick Tally

Published: March 14, 2014

Green food and drinks, festive parades, Irish music and shamrocks painted on smiling faces are all part of the great celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. But the St. Patrick’s Day celebration of the of the 21st century is a far cry from its holy origins in the ninth century, says Patrick Tally, a CU-Boulder historian.

“St. Patrick’s Day, though it officially became Saint’s Day in the 17th century, has been celebrated in Ireland as a religious holiday since the ninth or 10th Century," Tally said.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland didn’t happen until 1937, and until the 1970s, pubs were ordered closed and meat dishes were not served because March 17 usually fell during Lent. Tally says it took a special church exemption to allow meat and alcohol on St. Patrick’s Day.

“Ireland being a very Catholic country, they had to sort of relax the rules because St. Patrick’s Day usually falls during Lent," he said. "In previous centuries, eating of meat was sort of forbidden to Catholics so the ability to eat meat, to drink alcohol, to have a little bit of a celebration, there sort of had to be a dispensation so people could do this.”

And Tally says the St. Patrick’s Day we know today is really an Irish-American creation.

 “It became celebrated in a different fashion largely by Irish-Americans as sort of an assertion of their Irish-American heritage and pride as early as the 18th century," Tally said. "The first parade was actually held in New York City in 1762. It was held by Irish members of the British Army. Ever since 1762, there has been a St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York, so it’s the longest running St. Patrick’s Day parade.”

By the mid-1800s the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day was widespread in America because of the increasing amount of Irish immigrants.

“You have a huge expansion of St. Patrick’s Day spread across the United States as Irish immigrants spread across the United States," he said. "Places in the Midwest -- Cleveland, Chicago -- begin holding these as an assertion of Irish-American pride. And it remained that way through into the 20th Century and then, of course, became much more commercialized -- these sort of little green leprechauns and whatnot. It’s become less of an Irish holiday and more of a holiday for everybody else”