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Why is St Patrick’s Day bigger than St George’s Day?
Ah, St Patrick’s Day. An important celebration of Irish history and culture and heritage, which involves wearing giant leprechaun hats and having five pints of Guinness for brunch. As the one-time Pub Landlord finds out in Al Murray: Why Does Everyone Hate the English?, many Irish people find it rather irritating to see the event being used as an excuse to get daytime-drunk by people many, many miles from Ireland itself.
Which begs the question, just why IS St Patrick’s Day such a huge thing among people whose knowledge of Irish culture doesn’t extend much beyond a dim familiarity with the Corrs’ early work? And why has St George’s Day had such a raw deal, cultural phenomenon wise? Indeed, according to a poll by a British think tank, English people are far more likely to know the date of St Patrick’s Day, as opposed to the date of their own patron saint’s day (it’s April 23, in case you were wondering).
Who are These Saints Anyway?
St Patrick was about Irish as St George was English – ie, not at all. Both saints, despite being proudly held up as icons of their respective nations, actually hailed from elsewhere. In the case of George, very elsewhere – this semi-legendary figure is thought to have been born in what is now Turkey, later serving in the Roman army. Allegedly tortured and killed for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, the historical George became a figure from a fairy tale – a gallant, dragon-slaying warrior saint who would inspire the fighters in the Crusades.
His awesome, magical reputation among Christian soldiers led to Edward III making George the patron of the Order of the Garter, a chivalric order founded in the 14th Century and still going strong today. That paved the way for this dim and distant figure becoming adopted as England’s patron saint – a status cemented by Shakespeare’s words in Henry V – 'Cry God for Harry, England and St George!
'St Patrick's Day celebrations reflect the assertion of an identity distinct from the dominant English identity...'
As for St Patrick… Well, he was born somewhere on mainland Britain. Some say he may have been Scottish, others maintain he hailed from Wales. Either way, he wasn’t from Ireland. Instead, he was abducted as a teenager and taken there to work as a slave. He eventually escaped, only to return to Ireland as a Christian missionary, and become entwined with the history and folklore of the nation.
Patrick vs George
Speaking to This Week newspaper, politics lecturer Robert Ford pointed out, 'St Patrick's Day celebrations reflect the assertion of an identity distinct from the dominant English identity… It is not clear whom the English define themselves against, or in comparison to.'
And this could be the key reason St George’s Day has never become an excuse for a big shindig. England was once an imperialist superpower, the seat of an empire, a synonym for supremacy – so why on earth would the English need a day to trumpet their national identity when that identity has already been comprehensively stamped on lands across the world? Little wonder that many contemporary English folk, in our self-deprecating post-imperialist era, find the very idea a bit awkward and embarrassing at best, and outright insensitive or racist at worst. Certainly, the flag of St George is still uncomfortably associated with far-right groups in many people’s minds.
St Patrick’s Day, by contrast, originated as a form of cultural self-defence among Irish immigrants to the New World. That’s right – it was actually born across the Atlantic in Boston, in 1737. In the words of journalist Dan Pashman, it originated as a way to 'celebrate Irish culture, in order to fight prejudice against Irish immigrants'.
But why, in the words of Pashman, do 'many of us celebrate by going out drinking and acting out the very stereotypes the day was created to combat'? Back in England, the tradition went on a kind of hiatus during the 70s and 80s, when the Troubles made the celebration of Irish culture rather problematic, and St Patrick’s Day was marked in smaller, more private ways.
Things changed in the 90s, with a thawing of political tensions and a surge in the popularity of all things Irish. The Republic of Ireland qualified for the World Cup finals in 1990 and 1994 (with England not even making it to the latter tournament), Riverdance became a theatrical phenomenon, and Irish theme pubs sprang up everywhere. St Patrick’s Day exploded in popularity, helped along by the commercial might of Guinness.
Of course, many might argue that an English person spending a day dressed up as a leprechaun and telling people how their great-great-great-uncle was “actually Irish, you know” smacks of the worst kind of cultural appropriation. Others may equally argue it’s a harmless bit of fun based on a shared history – after all, Ireland only broke away from the UK in the 20th Century, and many English people really will have Irish blood in their veins.
As for St George’s Day – perhaps it can eventually be rehabilitated in the popular imagination, and reinvented as a St Paddy’s Day-like excuse to have a bit of fun. Instead of wearing leprechaun hats and drinking Guinness, English revellers could perhaps don their best Shakespeare costumes and clank glasses of real ale. It’s definitely what a Turkish-born Roman soldier of the 3rd Century AD would have wanted…