Ireland may not have a public Mardi Gras celebration but, in recent years, St. Patrick’s Day festivities have come close to resembling it. The festival marks the life and times of St. Patrick, the Christian saint, kidnapped from Wales by Irish pirates, and widely credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century. Based on widely accepted historical evidence, especially that of Celtic scholar T.F. O’Rahilly, Patrick is most likely one of several early-Christian preachers, including Palladius, who spread the new religion in around the fifth and sixth centuries.
Most biographers agree that the historical Patrick is quite different from the person represented in legend. Some suggest that there may have been several “Patrick” figures that merged into one legend. According to legend, Patrick is the person who drove snakes out of Ireland (in fact, Ireland is snake free because of the last ice age, but the legend perhaps refers to the “serpents” or perceived false gods of the pagan religion, who were eradicated from the island through Patrick’s influence).
St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have changed significantly over time. In 2001, author Maeve Binchy, writing in the New York Times, said that Dublin was “the dullest place on earth to spend St. Patrick’s Day” up until the late 1970s. Alcohol could not be sold, and St. Patrick’s was a holy day of observation. While other cities – notably, New York, Boston, Chicago, Liverpool and London – held parades and festivities, Ireland was relatively quiet. St. Patrick’s Day was perhaps more celebrated among Irish emigrants and people of Irish descent than in Ireland itself.
Although a parade was held in Dublin from the 1950s, it was an industrial pageant. It 1969, it was taken over by Dublin Tourism and became a general parade with American marching bands, majorettes, and cheerleaders as a central feature. Although initially praised in the mainstream media, it was not until 1996 that the parade was transformed into a large scale carnival event, similar to Mardi Gras and the American St. Patrick’s Day parades. It received Government and State backing and the parade turned into a major tourist event, with Irish arts, music, dance, culture, and food taking centre-stage.
Now, March 17 is the focus of a four-day festival, aimed at the international and domestic tourism markets. Irish Government ministers now routinely travel to key trading countries around March 17 to promote Irish enterprise and culture; most famously, the Irish Prime Minister annually presents a bowl to the sitting US President on the day.
But, hand in hand with this, many local communities across Ireland hold their own parades, which are planned throughout the year and which draw on local community groups and artistic and musical organisations to take part, firmly rooting the event back into the local. At the same time, the parades have grown to reflect the multi-cultural nature of Ireland, which has absorbed hundreds of thousands of immigrants from across the world since the mid-1990s.