My husband asked me an interesting question the other day. He wondered why St. Patrick's Day is such a big deal. "Who was St. Patrick?" he asked. From the history I've heard, Patrick was the son of a wealthy family in Gaul (now France) who was captured and sold into slavery in Eire (now Ireland). This happened hundreds of years ago, even before France, England, or Ireland were nations. After a time, he managed to escape, returned home, and was converted to Christianity. Then comes the surprising part. He returned to Eire to witness to those who had enslaved him. What a great example of loving your enemies!
It is said that the shamrock became an emblem of Ireland because Patrick used the three-leafed clover to illustrate the Holy Trinity. And since it was green, and the moist climate of this island keeps the fields green most of the year, green came to be identified with the Irish, as well.
Now, this was all before there were Protestants and Catholics. There was one Christian church. The word catholic actually means "one unity", and in the days before the Protestant Reformation, it actually meant just "Christian". I believe after the reformation the Roman Catholic Church held onto this term as a way to show they believed they were still the 'true church.'
Enter the English, descended from Germanic and Norse (Norman-French) stock. For centuries they battled and worked to subdue the original inhabitants of the British Isles, the Celts--who we know as the Welsh, Irish and Scots today. Of course the bloodlines are merged in many places, and it's a fortunate person who can trace any pure line of ancestry now. For myself, I've found evidence that I'm a mixture of all these bloodlines, with ancestors scattered throughout the British Isles, Germany, and Denmark.
The next stage of Irish history is still in evidence today, with the northern counties of Ireland, called Ulster, still part of Great Britain, while the rest of the island is the independent country of Ireland, called Eire by the pure in heart. The Irish flag is orange, green, and white--an attempt at unifying the two forces represented by green and orange.
Green is the color Ireland loves, and it's associated with their patron saint--Patrick. (By the way nearly every day in the calendar commemorates at least one saint. For example, February 14 is the birthday of St. Valentine, a bishop in the early Christian church. December 6 is St. Nicholas Day.) Over the years green came to represent the Catholics of Ireland.
But orange? This came about because in 1607, King James of the United Kingdom of Scotland and England, who was Protestant, began luring Lowland Scots over to Ulster, offering free land to those who had none. Thus Ulster is largely Protestant, even to this day. In the mid-twentieth century there was much sectarian violence between Irish Catholics and Protestants in Ulster. The legacy of King James outlived him by over 300 years.
The orange came about because a nobleman named William of Orange (in Holland), a Protestant, became King of England because he was married to Mary, a descendant of King James. I won't go into all the other fighting and strife linked to this, but there's plenty. We see this pair in the names of our own American colonies, including Maryland, named for this Mary. There's a college in the east named William and Mary. And the town of Williamsburg, Virginia is named for him.
Therefore, since the Irish Catholics had green, the Protestants decided to wear orange. And there are Societies of Orangemen to this day. During some periods in the nineteenth century when England was still trying to rule Ireland, the wearing of green was banned. Some of you may have heard the song, Wearing of the Green, which depicts this. Similar things were done by England in Scotland, such as the banning of wearing the tartan or plaids, which stood for each Scottish clan. They also tried to suppress the speaking of the native tongue Gaelic, but in the late twentieth century we've seen a resurgence of people speaking Gaelic. Welsh, too.
Now of course, Ireland has finally gained independence from Britain, and the strife in Ulster has abated. Many descendants of Irish immigrants live here in the United States. I have ancestors from both Ulster and Ireland. Rather than a religious observance of an early saintly man who came to share the Gospel with his former enemies, St. Patrick's Day is another day to party, much like St. Valentine's Day.
I'm glad neither of these saints has been completely forgotten, though. And today, on Patrick's supposed birthday, I'm wearing green. I have to add one more note here, though. My mother, bless her soul, didn't care much for the color green. Her favorite color was orange. I wonder now if this was some unconscious family heritage she had, for many of her ancestors were among the English and Lowland Scots who emigrated to Ulster and later to America. But she's gone now, so I'll never know for sure.
Oh, yes, and kids at school still try to pinch you if you're not wearing green. I don't know where this came from, but I wonder if it was reaction by the Irish who'd been forbidden to wear green. If they did, they got "pinched" by being arrested and thrown in jail. At least St. Patrick's day is more harmless now. And so far, I haven't heard anyone saying it's not politically correct.