On March 17th, It’s Green—But Why?
by Doug McQuiston
The Inside Scoop on St. Patty.
St. Patrick’s Day falls this year on a Sunday, which is entirely appropriate. It started in Ireland more than 1,000 years ago as a Holy Day, when the Catholic population of the island attended mass on March 17 to celebrate the life of their patron saint.
But why do we wear green on St. Patrick’s Day? Why shamrocks? As you claw through your closet this year looking for that kelly green sweater you never wear on any other day, wouldn’t you like to know why you’re wearing it? Well, boyo, read on!
St. Patrick was born about 373 A.D., not in Ireland, but in Wales, the son of a Roman-British army officer. After being kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland as a child, he eventually escaped to Europe, took the Roman name Patricius and became a Catholic bishop. He returned to Ireland to convert the mostly Druid Gaels in Ireland to Christianity. He used the shamrock, (already a common religious symbol for the Druids) to explain the Holy Trinity.
Although Christianity already existed in Ireland at the time (having been introduced earlier by other Christian slaves), St. Patrick is said to have done much to spread the faith. The Gaels revered their beloved St. Padráic. In the centuries that followed his death around March 17, 460, they celebrated his Feast Day by attending mass, their hats adorned with sprigs of shamrocks.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was not in Ireland, though, but in colonial New York City, when Irish conscripts in the English army marched through town wearing shamrocks on their caubeens, or berets, on March 17, 1762 to celebrate their Irish roots, (and annoy their English conscriptors).
The Irish have long regarded the deep, vivid green of the shamrock, like the green of their hillsides, as their national color. In the early 1700s, the custom of wearing shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day fell on hard times in Ireland with the passage of the penal laws. These harsh English statutes essentially criminalized the practice of Catholicism in Ireland in a misguided attempt to eradicate Irish culture on the Emerald Isle.
When word of the American Revolution spread to Ireland in 1776, Irish patriotic societies also began to agitate for Ireland’s freedom. Some, inspired by their American brethren, took up arms and harassed the occupying English armies. They carried green banners emblazoned with a gold harp, the ancient flag of Ireland from centuries before. Soon, Irishmen began to support their quest for freedom by resurrecting the ancient banned custom of wearing shamrocks on their hats on St. Patrick’s Day. The color green became, even more than a national color, a symbol of Irish independence.
The crown, stinging from the insurrection in the colonies, cracked down on the Irish by tightening the penal law screws, making the wearing of green clothing or even shamrock sprigs a hanging offense. Once again, the English effort to suppress Irish culture did not have the effect the crown had planned. The custom spread and the uprisings grew.
At the same time, Irish expatriates in the newly free America observed the terrible repression of their kin on the Emerald Isle. They struck back by making a point of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and wearing green to thumb their noses at the English.
An Irish-American playwright, Dion Boucicault, was credited about this time with writing the lyrics to the beloved Irish march "The Wearin’ of the Green." You will surely hear this tune on St. Patrick’s Day when the Michael Collins Pipes and Drums play it as they march down Broadway in their green kilts (Editor’s Note: Did we mention that Doug McQuiston plays in the Michael Collins Pipes and Drums?). In the tune, he laments the crown’s repressive prohibitions, and celebrates the Irish resistance to them:
"Oh Paddy dear, and did you hear the news that’s going round_The shamrock is forbid by law to grow on Irish ground._Saint Patrick’s Day no more we’ll keep - his colors can’t be seen_For there’s a cruel law against the wearing of the green…
…When the law can stop the blades of grass from growing as they grow_And when the leaves in summer-time, their color dare not show_Then I will change the color, too, I wear in my caubeen_But ’til that day, please God, I’ll stick to wearing of the Green."
So this year, as you put on that green sweater, remember you’re commemorating a time when your Irish ancestors could be hung for doing the same. Oh, and one more thing—stay away from the "green beer." When our pipe band is playing in the pubs after the parade, I don’t want you spilling any of that foul stuff on me. You wouldn’t believe the stain it can put on an Aran Sweater.