Thursday, March 17, 2011

From Pious & Blue to Pissed & Green - Evolution of St Paddy's Day

From Pious to Pissed - How the Hell Did We Go from Religious Celebration to Green Beer & Plastic Hats?

I have never understood why bars have this strange compulsion to put green food colouring in their beer or why their patrons have the uncontrollable urge to buy this beer and consume it on St Patrick’s Day.
Friends don't let friends
drink green beer!
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that most of the time the green dye is added to such beers as Molson and Labatt Blue, which may, in fact, improve upon their taste. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that those who drink such beers are not all too concerned about what actually goes into their mass-produced brews, hence a little green food dye, on top of the rice, corn and other fillers and additives does not faze them.

If that is your thing, go for it and enjoy. Who am I to tell others what to drink.

I do know that the only green beer I have ever consumed in my life was one that I accidentally spilled my absinthe into while drinking in a bar in Prague and I was not about to waste that. In fact, I may have “accidentally” spilled another glass or two of the green fairy into my Budvars that may have resulted in me having a wee chat with a leprechaun or two on my way home that fine summer eve. 

While on the topic of green and St Patrick’s Day, I am pretty sure that wearing a plastic green hat, or funny green badge that states “On St Patrick’s Day I’m Irish” does not qualify one for an Irish passport, even of the temporary variety. I’d also like to point out if you are legitimately Irish and wearing a, “Kiss Me I’M Irish” t-shirt, no matter how attractive you are, I will not be kissing you, St Patrick’s Day or not, due to a phobia of kissing strangers and an aversion to being belted upside the head by my darling, loving, petite-yet-fierce wife, who, quite frankly, scares me a lot more than a pint of Molson Canadian with green food dye in it.

You may be thinking at this point that I am the Scrooge of St Paddy’s Day, but I can assure you this is not the case. Like many on March 17th, I claim to have Irish heritage, but in my case it is true. I am decidedly Canadian, but only a few generations removed, on my mother’s side, from Dublin, where my great grandfather hailed from. I was born Sean Hogan and renamed Patrick, by the family that adopted me, but have been known as Paddy for some time. I have always celebrated St Patrick’s Day, from wearing green as a youngster to going out and tipping a few jars back with friends as I got old enough to do so.

But as much as green beer and plastic green hats are synonymous with St Paddy's Day here in N America , today’s March 17th celebrations have about as much to do with St Patrick and Ireland as Alexander Keith’s IPA has to do with IPA. From what I have read, St Patrick was not known much as a drinking man at all and was not known to adorn himself head to toe in green.

Historians are a little fuzzy on what St Pat actually got up to when he wasn't chasing the snakes (read pagan religions), from the Emerald Isle during the 5th Century, but I will wager a barrel of Irish whiskey he was not tipping back tankards of green swill down at the local tavern after a hard day of converting the pagans to Christianity. As for all the green visible on St Patrick’s Day, that is something that evolved over time. Blue, not green, was originally associated with him. Green was adopted in the 1800’s to symbolize the shamrock, which legend has it St Patrick used to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans he was converting.

St Patrick’s Day was originally a day of feasting and worship, held on March 17th, the anniversary of St Patrick’s death, thought to be some time in around 493 AD. History books tell us he is not even Irish, having been born in Northern England, or Southern Scotland, which may explain the blue as he may originally been a Man City, Everton, or God forbid if you are Catholic, a Rangers supporter.

He was an accidental tourist in Ireland at first, having been kidnapped from his home in Britain, when he was 15 or 16, by an Irish raiding party and brought to Ireland as a slave. He remained in Ireland for approximately six years, herding sheep, learning the Irish language and becoming familiar with the pagan way of life, before escaping and heading back to his family after being directed to a ship in the south of Ireland by the voice of God.

Now I don't know about the 5th C, but I do know that these days, telling others you hear the voice of God will net you a one-way ticket to the psychiatric unit, not a free boat ride to England. But despite the voices, after heading home, St Patrick entered the church, studying in France and later returning to Ireland as an ordained bishop and missionary and began his work converting the pagans to Christianity.
The St Patrick’s feast day has been celebrated since around the 10th Century by the Irish. In the 1600's, March 17th became an official religious holiday in Ireland for Catholics and was a day of worship. It was not until 1903 that St Patrick’s Day became an official holiday in Ireland and the first parade was held in Dublin in 1931.
St Paddy's Day Quebecois-Style
in Montreal
The first ever noted St Patrick’s Day celebrations in North America occurred in the 1700s Boston and New York where Irish immigrants and their descendants celebrated their home country. At this point, at least in North America, it became a day of celebrating Irish culture more than a religious holiday and took on more of a festive tone. Here in Canada, the first ever recorded St Patrick’s Day Parade was in Montreal, in 1824 and has been held every year since and in Newfoundland, St Patrick’s Day is recognized as a provincial holiday.

Over the years, the day has lost all religious meaning outside of Ireland to the point that for many it means throwing on something green, going to the pub and getting blind drunk. As with most things in North America, commercialism took over hence the plastic green hats, shamrock antennas, green beer and temporary leprechaun tattoos. Now it is a celebration of Irish stereotypes in many cases. There are some authentic cultural events, but they get lost in the Guinness promotions and faux Irish pub events.

For me, it is a day to avoid most bars. I find most of them are about as un-Irish as you can get in their efforts to capture the St Patrick’s Day spirit. Imagine walking into a bar in Ireland and ordering an Irish Car Bomb shooter. I guarantee you that you would be turfed unceremoniously out onto the street quicker than you can say pogue mahone! Irish whiskey is meant to be sipped, not pounded down with red bull. It is “rookie night” at the bar for the most part, full of loud, obnoxious drunks.

Throwing up a few green streamers and shamrock decorations does not make a bar an Irish bar.

Having said all that, you will find me in a bar on St Paddy's Day, those who know me know where, and I will be doing something else very un-Irish, that being drinking a craft beer (there, I did sneak craft beer into this rant/history lesson). If you care to join me for a pint or two of Back Hand of God and an Irish whiskey, please do. You can join me in a toast or two in memory of my dear, departed mother who adopted me and raised me as her own and who happens to share a few things in common with St Patrick, that being she passed on March 17 and that she was a saint.



  1. FYI, there's no Red Bull in an Irish Car Bomb. It's 1/2 shot Bailey's Irish Cream, 1/2 shot Jameson Irish Whiskey dropped into an Irish stout (usually Guinness)

  2. I actually wasn't referring to the Irish Car Bomb with that comment Anthony. I was in a bar once and they were actually serving Jameson with Red Bull and people were drinking them!