St. Patrick's Day is celebrated on 17 March as a holiday in the Republic of Ireland and a bank holiday in Northern Ireland. If 17 March falls on a weekend, the following Monday will be a holiday in both countries.
St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is a widely known historic figure and arguably the most famous patron saint of a country.
Despite this level of fame, we know surprisingly few details abut his life. Interestingly he's not the only recognised patron saint of Ireland, both 'Brigid of Kildare' and 'Columba' are officially recognised as such.
Also St Patrick is a patron saint of Nigeria, Montserrat and Engineers.
The tiny island of Montserrat, known as "Emerald Island of the Caribbean" due to its foundation by Irish refugees from Saint Kitts and Nevis, is the only place in the world apart from the Republic of Ireland and the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador in which St Patrick's Day is a public holiday.
It is generally accepted that St. Patrick was born in Northern England or Southern Scotland to wealthy parents around 385AD. His original name was probably Maewyn Succat. He later adopted Patricius as his Christian/Roman name, which became widely known as Patrick.
While he was only sixteen, Patrick was taken prisoner after a band of raiders from Ireland had attacked his family's estate in Wales. They took him back him to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity as a slave. It is said that it was at this time, while he was working as a shepherd on Slemish mountain that he became a devout Christian.
He eventually escaped from his slavery to Gaul (in modern day France) where he studied for twelve years in the monastery under St. Germain, the bishop of Auxerre. It was during this period of training that Patrick realised his calling in life was to become a missionary and convert pagans to Christianity.
After his training, he wanted to return to Ireland, to convert the native pagans there to Christianity. But he had to bide his time as St. Palladius was ordained by Pope Celestine and sent to Ireland as their first bishop. It was over two years later, when Palladius was transferred to Scotland, that Patrick was appointed as second bishop to Ireland.
Patrick proved himself to be quite adept at winning converts to Christianity. So much so, that he upset the local Celtic Druids. In fact, he was arrested on several occasions, but managed to escape each time. He journeyed extensively across Ireland, establishing monasteries in several locations. In addition, he also set up churches and schools, all of which created the foundations for the whole of Ireland to eventually be converted to Christianity.
His missionary work in Ireland continued for thirty years. After that, Patrick retired to County Down in North Eastern Ireland. Patrick died on 17 March in 461AD.
He was canonised by the local church, as was the practice at the time, thus his elevation to sainthood was never formally granted by a Pope; however he is in the church's official List of Saints. The day became a feast day due to lobbying by the Irish-born Franciscan scholar Luke Wadding in the early part of the 17th century, though it soon evolved into more of a secular holiday.
Much Irish folklore surrounds St. Patrick's Day, Some of this lore includes Patrick healing the sick, and raising the dead.
He is said to have given a sermon from a hilltop that drove all the snakes from Ireland. No snakes are know to have existed in Ireland at least since the end of the ice age. Some scholars think the driving away of the snakes may have been a metaphor for the conversion of the pagans.
A more plausible story attributed to Patrick is how he used the Shamrock, a three-leaved clover, to explain the Trinity. In his sermons he would use it to represent how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit could be separate elements of the same entity.
Today, St. Patrick's Day is a day to recognise Irish heritage and celebrated by people of all backgrounds in many parts of the world, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia. Although these are the main overseas populations, St. Patrick's Day is also been celebrated in other locations as far flung from Ireland as Japan, Singapore, and Russia.
St. Patrick's Day became an official public holiday in Ireland in 1903 with the passing of the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act 1903, which was introduced by Irish MP James O'Mara.
In 1927, O'Mara introduced the law that banned the sale of alcohol on St. Patrick's Day to prevent drinking on a religious holiday. The law was changed in 1961 to permit legal drinking, but only at the Royal Dublin Society Dog show. It wasn't until the 1970's that the law was fully repealed.
It was first publicly celebrated in the United States of America in Boston in 1737. Surprisingly, the first recorded St. Patrick's Day parade didn't actually take place in Ireland, when on 17 March 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City.
The global spread of the holiday was partly due to the Great Potato Famine of 1845 which forced over a million of the Irish population to emigrate.