What St. Patrick's Day is really all about

St. Patrick's Day celebrations are happening on P.E.I. today — but the day is marked differently back in Ireland than it is elsewhere.

'It was a religious day, not a day to be partying'

St. Patrick's Day parties and parades were begun by Irish immigrants to North America and have now spread back to Ireland. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

St. Patrick's Day celebrations are happening on P.E.I. today — but the day is marked differently back in Ireland than it is elsewhere.

Patrick Fitzgerald is the president of P.E.I.'s Benevolent Irish Society (B.I.S.) — he immigrated to Canada from County Kerry, Ireland, when he was 18 but still speaks with an Irish brogue and often breaks into his first language, Gaelic.

"In Ireland it's different than North America — in Ireland St. Patrick's Day is a holy day," Fitzgerald said from his home in Vernon Bridge, P.E.I. 

"People go to church and they go on pilgrimages and they celebrate St. Patrick — they don't celebrate being Irish, because everybody's Irish!" he said. "It was a religious day, not a day to be partying." 

Irish people have created their own myth about themselves and they're trying to live up to their own myth.— Patrick Fitzgerald

In North America, St. Patrick's Day has become a celebration of being Irish — parades and parties feature head-to-toe green clothing, green leprechaun hats — the City of Chicago even dyes the Chicago River green for the day. 

"And of course, there's a little bit of drinking," said Fitzgerald, noting St. Patrick's Day in North America means one of the busiest pub days of the year. 

According to the P.E.I. Liquor Control Commission, the week leading up to St. Patrick's Day beer sales on the Island increase slightly — last year, about five per cent — with a bump of about 20 per cent on St. Patrick's Day itself.

Holy day

Back in Ireland, Fitzgerald recalls as a child going out to pick shamrocks (like a small clover), pinning them to their best outfits and going to church on St. Patrick's Day.

The city of Chicago has dyed the Chicago River green every year since 1962 to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. (James Foster/Associated Press)

St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in about 420 A.D., he explains. St. Patrick was originally a slave but escaped and became a priest in France. He had a vision from God to return to Ireland, driving out the pagans — often depicted as snakes in the legend. 

Since he came to Canada, Fitzgerald admits he enjoys the day "American style," celebrating with food and drinks at Irish clubs.

Returning to Ireland to live for a few years a decade ago, Fitzgerald noticed Irish people have adopted that style, with more parties and parades than before.

"I think Irish people have created their own myth about themselves and they're trying to live up to their own myth," that Irish people are jolly, beer-swilling folk.

But they'll only goes so far, he asserts.

"In Ireland they drink real Irish beer — they would never drink green beer," Fitzgerald said. 

Irish traditions 'alive' on P.E.I.

P.E.I. is one of the most Irish places in North America — Fitzgerald says from his research, at least 35 per cent of Islanders can trace Irish roots.

'They would never drink green beer,' in Ireland, says Patrick Fitzgerald. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

The B.I.S. was formed in 1825 to help Irish settlers, and now works to preserve and promote Irish culture on P.E.I. — it regularly holds lectures, step-dancing classes, ceilidhs and concerts at its hall on North River Road in Charlottetown.

"There's probably more music in pubs in P.E.I. than there is in Ireland," Fitzgerald said, pointing to the Olde Dublin Pub, The Old Triangle and the B.I.S.

"The people on this Island really celebrate their culture, probably more so," he said. "The tradition has stayed alive here, in many ways because it's been isolated — there's been no outside influence on P.E.I.

'They're trying to live up to their own myth,' about being Irish, says Fitzgerald. (Dima Gavrysh/Associated Press)

"You don't have to drag people out here, they want to come out, they want to be part of it, so it's very good."  

That's illustrated in the fact that the St. Patrick's Day dinner Saturday night at the B.I.S. is sold out — all 120 tickets. This year, the society is also reviving an old tradition — its annual variety show. It featured Irish music, stories and an Irish singalong Friday night.

The beer will not be green, Fitzgerald said.

More P.E.I. News: 

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