On the 17th March 1766, the first recorded St Patrick’s Day parade took place…in New York. Irish soldiers serving in the British Army led the parade which, due to the high number of Irish immigrants in the city, quickly became an annual tradition. The first parade in Ireland didn’t take place until 1903 in Waterford.
St Patrick was a Romano-British Christian missionary who converted thousands of Irish Pagans before his death in 461. Although he didn’t really rid Ireland of snakes, since Ireland never contained any snakes, he was responsible for driving out Paganism from almost the entire country. The 17th March, the reputed date of St Patrick’s death, was being marked with feasting by the end of the 10th Century. However, it was not officially recognised by the Catholic Church until the early 17th Century.
Within a century, however, Irish immigrants to America had begun to mark the date in their own ways. Significantly, the early settlers were predominantly Protestant and this helps to explain why many St Patrick’s Day celebrations are largely secular in nature as they are associated more with celebrating Irish culture than the Catholic Saint. This also became an official approach of the Irish Government in the mid-1990s, who established the St Patrick’s Festival to showcase Irish culture.
However, the secularisation of St Patrick’s Day has drawn criticism from some Church leaders who have criticised its “mindless alcohol-fuelled revelry”. In the past, pubs and bars in Ireland had actually been required to close on the 17th March due to concerns over excessive drinking. However, that law was repealed in the 1970s.