When Maewyn Succat came to Ireland around the year 432 to preach Christianity, he probably never imagined that, hundreds of years later, people would commemorate his life by drinking stout, parading down the street, and pinching anybody who isn’t wearing green.
If you haven’t heard of Succat, that’s probably because you know him by a different name: Saint Patrick.
Who Was Saint Patrick?
Born in Britain, the famed missionary — who later took up the Latin name Patricius — spent his adult life converting people in Ireland to Christianity, establishing hundreds of churches on the island. His efforts were instrumental in making Roman Catholicism a dominant religion in the country. The people of the Emerald Isle have venerated him as a saint ever since.
Starting around the 10th century, the Irish began commemorating the purported date of Patrick’s death, March 17. Since the date often fell in the middle of the holy season of Lent, many people celebrated the day by briefly breaking their Lenten fasts to enjoy a feast in his honor. It’s from that religious tradition that the modern St. Patrick’s Day originated.
There was one notable absence from those early celebrations, though — the color green was nowhere to be seen.
Out of the Blue
For centuries, the color green had nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day. In fact, if the celebration had any official color, it was blue. The earliest depictions of the saint show Patrick draped in blue vestments.
Ireland’s association with the color blue had been long-standing. “The significance of blue dates back to early Irish mythology when the sovereignty of Ireland, Flaitheas Éireann, was often represented by a woman dressed in a blue robe,” Shaylyn Esposito explains in Smithsonian Magazine. “According to legend, the depiction was based on the 10th-century queen named Gormfhlaith, a portmanteau of the ancient Irish words for blue (gorm) and sovereign (falith).”
Starting in 1542, the flag of Ireland depicted a gold harp against a dark blue background. And in the 18th century, when King George III established the “Order of St. Patrick,” the official color for the order of chivalry was sky blue.
But politics would change all that.
Rebels With a Cause
In the 17th century, the English crown established large plantations in the northern counties of Ireland, displacing thousands of Catholic landowners with Protestants from Great Britain. The Irish were furious with the foreign colonizers, and in 1641, a bloody rebellion ensued. During the battle, the Confederation of Kilkenny — a group of Irish nationalists — altered the country’s flag to display a green background.
The Irish lost the rebellion, but future dissidents didn’t forget their sacrifice — or their flag. In the late 18th century, a nationalist group called the Society of United Irishmen adopted the same harp flag with a green backdrop. Inspired by the revolutions in America and France, they marched to battle wearing green uniforms. This led the British regime to suppress “all signs of insurrection” by targeting anyone who was caught “wearing a ribbon of ‘revolutionary green,’” according to the American Antiquarian Society.
Green quickly became politicized. Poets, musicians, and other artists sympathetic to the Irish cause began writing ballads to commemorate the men fighting for Irish independence. One particularly memorable protest song was “Green on the Cape,” which lambasted the Protestant occupiers (represented here by the color orange).
Cheer up my lively lad you have friends in this town,
We will send a fleet over to pull the orange down,
To pull the orange down, and it will plainly shall be seen
There is nothing like the Irish lads for wearing the green.
Years later, an adaptation of the song, called “The Wearing of the Green” — a reel brimming with feisty, patriotic lyrics — would become wildly popular across Ireland:
O Paddy dear, and did ye hear the news that’s goin’ round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground!
Saint Patrick’s Day no more we'll keep, his colours can’t be seen
For they’re hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.
For the Irish, wearing green became an expression of solidarity, a tentpole of identity, and a point of national and cultural pride.
The Color of Freedom
The reason Irish freedom fighters chose green is unclear. It may have been a process of elimination. Red was the color worn by the British military. Orange was most often associated with William of Orange — a villain to most Irish Catholics. And blue, despite its association with the country’s folklore and Saint Patrick, may have been disregarded because it had been co-opted by the British.
Green, on the other hand, had no association with the British. Saint Patrick famously used green shamrocks to teach his followers about the Holy Trinity. And the farms and fields of Ireland were, of course, famously verdant. The color was also getting attention in the nation’s poetry. In the 1790s, William Drennan — himself an Irish nationalist and a cofounder of the Society of United Irishmen — wrote the poem “When Erin First Rose,” which included the first use of the phrase “Emerald Isle.”
Let no feeling of vengeance presume to defile
The cause of, or men of, the Emerald Isle
Whatever their reason for choosing the color, the poems, ballads, and battles of the Irish nationalists firmly planted the idea that green was central to Irish identity. It wasn’t a big leap to make a similar association while celebrating Saint Patrick’s feast day.
By 1848, green would appear on Ireland’s national flag. And as Irish immigrants fled to distant lands, they brought the color — and celebration of their country’s beloved saint — with them.