St Patrick's Day

The true story behind Ireland's patron saint

For a long time, St Patrick’s Day has been celebrated with much more panache and vigour in other cities in the world than in Northern Ireland.

New York grinds to a green-coloured standstill, Irish pubs across Europe pack out with Aran jumper wearing beer swillers. Celebrations in NI’s cities have been smaller-scale and localised.

In 1998 the Carnabhal Naomh Pádraig Béal Feirste (Belfast's St Patrick Carnival) happened when festivals worked together to host a parade in the city.

With acts like Shane McGowan and Girls Aloud providing the entertainment over the years, the work of volunteers and Féile an Phobail have been instrumental in developing the festival in the capital.

NI politics have long conspired to make St Patrick’s Day a contentious celebration, 'owned' by one side of the community.

Funding for a large-scale carnival was not forthcoming until two years ago. Belfast has become multi-cultural, diverse, vibrant and celebratory.

In honour of this, 2007 sees a huge carnival with a giant St Patrick, flying monkfish, angels and dancing serpents to commemorate the story.

Samantha Mumba and Sandi Thom will sing, along with Streetwize and Cool FM’s Pete Snodden.

But what of St Patrick?

The patron Saint of Ireland was likely to have been Welsh. Born around AD 585, aged 16 he was abducted by Irishmen, and with thousands of his countrymen, brought to the slopes of Slemish Mountain in Co Antrim, to tend sheep.

Six years later he was visited by an angel, escaped from Ireland and travelled to Gaul where he studied in a monastery.

Fate was strange, as Patrick had a vision in which a man named Victoricus carried the Voice of Ireland to Patrick, saying: 'We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.'

Patrick obeyed the call, despite the advice of his friends and family, and returned to the land of his captivity to convert the Irish pagans to Christianity.

After 30 years spreading the gospel in Ireland, Patrick died on March 17, 461 AD.

Ever since, March 17 has been celebrated as St Patrick’s Day with shamrocks (which Patrick is said to have used to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity), and snakes (which Patrick supposedly drove out of Ireland).

Nowadays you are more likely to wear your shamrock on a furry green hat, or have it etched into your Guinness by a handy barman. Slainte!

In Derry, St Patrick’s Day is more like a weekend, with carnivals, music, dance, samba drumming and Irish dancing demonstrations.

Down District Council has long been to the forefront in organising NI’s biggest St Patrick’s Day cross-community carnival parade in Downpatrick.

This year it’s all about ‘Heroes and Icons’ and will bring the centre of Downpatrick to a halt with parades, floats and dancing supermen taking over the town.

In Fermanagh, The Ulster American Folk Park will host ‘The American Wake’ over St Patrick’s weekend. With dramatic re-enactments in a striking setting, this weekend will commemorate the departure of the Irish for the New World.