Northern Ireland has been in the news a million times in my lifetime. For the most part, it was about the struggle between the Catholics and Protestants and the terror attacks of the IRA. It was the focus of terrorism for a while, even above and beyond what was going on the Middle East. It was the topic of so many things, including a Tom Clancy novel, that I was surprised when it all kind of faded away. A guarded peace is alive and well in Northern Ireland, with the two opposing religious sides trying to get along. It's not easy to put all that anger away and work to be a whole country. But there's one time a year that Northern Ireland, and a lot of the rest of the world come together and celebrate. That day is March 17th -- St. Patrick's Day.
In America we do all kinds of parades. They have them all over the country. We drink green beer, we wear green clothing, we eat Corned Beef, some folks do go to church, and in Chicago they dye the river green. We have a really good time on St. Patrick's Day, but do most of us even know about St. Patrick? They do in Northern Ireland. This was the favored home of the Patron Saint of Ireland.
You'll find parades all over Ireland as well, with one of the biggest being in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Parades have been the favored way of celebrating St. Patrick's Day since 1762 when the first parade took place, not in Ireland but in New York City right here in America. It caught on and now there are parades everywhere.
So, how did St. Patrick become the saint who is celebrated today? Well, Northern Ireland is a beautiful place with beautiful people. St. Patrick was born in Northern England to a tax collector, however. At age 15 he was kidnapped by some Celtic outlaws and put into slavery in Ireland. He worked as a shepherd until he escaped. He chose to return to Ireland with a calling to serve God, and spread the word of the Catholic Church by explaining the Holy Trinity with a shamrock. That's the legend anyway. It could be true. Reportedly St. Patrick passed away on March 17th, 461. He was proclaimed the Patron Saint of Ireland and the rest is history.
In Northern Ireland there is a St. Patrick's Trail, and it is very popular for pilgrims and tourists. Newry is one of the stops on the trail and is a great town to visit with many ancient sites. It has a cathedral, as do most towns in the area that is dedicated to St. Patrick.
Downpatrick in County Down is one of the most visited stops on the trail. There is a rock outside the cathedral there that marks St. Patrick's final resting place. People come here to pay their respects to a man who changed the way Ireland views the world.
Who could blame him for wanting to come back to this amazing place? The land is beautiful, the cathedrals are beautiful inside and out, and the people are real and friendly and deeply religious. It is interesting that a country so divided by religious beliefs are so devoted to a man who only supported one of those two religions. Every St. Patrick's Day, Protestants and Catholics alike celebrate the day. Catholics even take a pass on Lent for one day to celebrate the feast with traditional foods such as Corned Beef and Cabbage.
Armagh is one of the big stops on the trail. St. Patrick spent a lot of his time in Armagh. This is where he established a church, monastery, and eventually an Archbishop's House. This was his home, and this is where he did a lot of good work for a lot of good people.
So, if you've ever wondered where it all started, it was in Northern Ireland. It didn't really start in Ireland proper. But, no matter what part of Ireland you live in, they all celebrate St. Patrick every March 17th. The parade may have started in New York City, but it's the method of public celebration of St. Patrick's Day all over. Corned Beef and Cabbage has become the staple food for the occasion; so much so that Catholics break their Lenten fast every year for that one day. Beer is the normal drink for the occasion with a little green dye in many places. So, you can follow the trail of St. Patrick from Belfast to Craigavon, to Newry, to Mourne, to Downpatric, to Armagh. There are many sites to see and churches and cathedrals too. And don't forget the view. The Emerald Isle has some of the most amazing scenery in all the British Isles. It is also home to some amazing hiking trails. So, come for the beer and Corned Beef, but stay for the view. Take the time to learn about the amazing saint that this holiday celebrates. So, whether you're in Belfast at a parade, or at the parade in Chicago, Illinois where they dye the river green; take the time to investigate and celebrate the Patron Saint of Ireland. Have a beer and toast St. Patrick's Day. Enjoy!