In the United States, St. Patrick’s Day is a day of celebration characterized by a staggering amount of green shamrock-emblazoned paraphernalia and a tendency for celebrants to over-imbibe in the name of their (usually questionable) Irish heritage. You might think that these traditions were brought over by Irish immigrants, but the truth is the reverse: Ireland has adopted many of these rituals as a result of American enthusiasm for the holiday. Whether you’re planning an excursion to Ireland or just want to appreciate St. Patrick’s Day traditions from home, here’s what to know about how (and why) Ireland celebrates this festive holiday which, this year, falls on Sunday, March 17.

Stained glass image of St. Patrick
Image by Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Who Was St. Patrick?

Most Americans think of him as the guy who drove snakes out of Ireland, but St. Patrick was more than just a mythical figure. He was born in Britain at the end of Roman rule sometime in the fifth century. Known as the “Apostle of Ireland,” he is their primary patron saint thanks to his highly successful missionary work converting the island’s people to Catholicism. 

According to his autobiographical piece, “Confessio,” Patrick was captured by Irish pirates from his home in Britain around the age of 16. He was kept as a slave, working as an animal herder for six years before escaping and returning to his family. 

It was his years spent in servitude under a Druidian monk that led Patrick to convert to Christianity. Once home in Britain, he strove to become a cleric and was ordained into the Catholic priesthood a few years later.

Patrick returned to the land of his captivity after receiving a vision of people in Ireland calling out to him to “come and walk among us.” (Recent biographers claim that he could have also had ulterior motives; he wrote his “Declaration” text during this time, defending against accusations of financial impropriety — which could have led to his needing a place to lay low for a bit.) Once there, Patrick set about converting people to Catholicism with impressive vigor. 

St. Patrick’s Day: Irish versus American Traditions

The Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day for more than 1,000 years, but it wasn’t celebrated with parties and parades until more recently. (The first official St. Patrick’s Day parade was actually held in New York City in 1762.) In Ireland, it was a holy day along the lines of other saints’ days, marked by family gatherings and the eating of traditional foods. After all, St. Patrick’s Day falls on March 17 — solidly in the middle of Lent — a time for fasting and religious contemplation. The multiday celebrations that you see today are a nod to the traditions started by Irish immigrants in America (and a slight capitulation to the tourism industry).

For example, one might think that corned beef and cabbage would be a staple of the Irish diet, but in truth, that’s a solidly American notion. The Irish national dish is actually bacon and cabbage, but according to History.com, Irish immigrants living on New York City’s Lower East Side substituted corned beef in their traditional dish to save money at the turn of the 20th century. They had learned about corned beef from their Jewish neighbors, and the rest is history.

Places to Visit In Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day

Just about anywhere you go in Ireland you’ll be able to find a festival celebrating St. Patrick and Irish culture, but there are a few places in particular you might want to visit.

Dublin skyline
Dublin skyline. Photo by MarekPhoto’s Images, via Canva.com.
  • Dublin

Dublin holds a five-day festival in honor of St. Patrick, with a huge street carnival and parades on March 17. While you’re there, be sure to check out the quirky and quaint Little Museum of Dublin on St. Stephen’s Green Park. The guided tours are highly entertaining and fill up fast, so be sure to book in advance. Also in Dublin are the Guinness Storehouse and Jameson Distillery, which can play host to hours of “spirited” entertainment. (Be sure to note the phrasing of the ID check on the Jameson site — we got a kick out of it.) If you enjoy these types of libations, you can also visit the Irish Whiskey Museum, which tells an unbiased history of the spirit and its role in Ireland’s turbulent past. It was voted “Best of the Best” Traveler’s Choice by Tripadvisor, and offers a wide selection of whiskeys to sample.

For our purposes, you really can’t miss EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, also located in Dublin. It was the winner of Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction at the World Travel Awards in 2019, and the win was well deserved. The museum is an interactive journey through the eyes of real, historical immigrants that explores how such a small island made such an immense impact on the world. Upon entry, you’re given a passport and instructions to follow a path through 20 themed galleries to discover why people left and how they influenced their adopted communities.

  • Croagh Patrick

Croagh Patrick (“Patrick’s Mountain”) in County Mayo is the supposed site of the eponymous saint’s fasting for 40 days and nights in 441 AD. His vigil over the course of Lent was spent praying on the mountaintop as part of his effort to convert Ireland to Christianity. The mountain is also where St. Patrick is credited with driving snakes, demons and magicians out of Ireland, hurling them into the Demon’s Hollow or Log na nDeamhan, a lake at the northern base of Croagh Patrick. (Although this is a romantic notion, according to paleontologists there were never snakes in Ireland. The “banishing of the snakes” is more of a metaphor for the eradication of pagan ideology.) Nevertheless, travelers from far and wide hike the 4.3-mile path to the summit, where a tiny chapel was established in 1905 to honor St. Patrick. 

  • The Rock of Cashel

If you enjoy visiting medieval sites, the Rock of Cashel offers a particularly impressive collection atop a dramatic outcrop of limestone in County Tipperary. It was originally the seat of the kings of Munster, and where St. Patrick himself dramatically converted King Aengus to Christianity in the fifth century. (The ritual gained legendary status when Patrick accidentally drove his staff through the king’s foot, which his highness mistook for being part of the ritual.)

  • Armagh

Where better to celebrate the life of St. Patrick than where his legacy runs deepest? Armagh is a small city situated in northern Ireland, and yet it is the ecclesiastical capital of the country. Originally an important ancient pagan ritual site, St. Patrick founded his main church here in the year 445. This church eventually became the head church of Ireland, thanks to Patrick’s influence. Today there are two impressive cathedrals bearing his name in the town, the original stone church and a post-Reformation Roman Catholic cathedral.

Top image by pawel.gaul from Getty Images Signature, via Canva.com


Recipes to Add a Bit of Irish to Your St. Patrick’s Day: