The 17th March, St Patrick's Day, is recognised as a celebration of Irishness around the world. Yet somehow, even though there are almost a million Protestants living on the island of Ireland, Irishness is often equated with Catholicism in many people's minds.
The truth is not so simple. This article is the story of how Irish Protestants have engaged with St Patrick's Day in the past, and how the peace process in Northern Ireland is once again changing how they relate to 17th March.
As Irish Protestants rediscover their relationship with the island's patron saint, St Patrick's Day poses the question: can Orange mix with Green?
St Patrick was captured as a young man by Irish pirates and taken from his home in Britain to the north of Ireland where he was sold into slavery. His own letters record that it was during this bleak time that he found God. Although he escaped to France after a couple of years, Patrick later chose to return to Ireland and work to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. He is credited with establishing Christianity on the island, as well as a wealth of miracles and legendary stories such as banishing the snakes out of Ireland.
St Patrick has often been portrayed as bringing Catholicism to Ireland, but at this time there was no such religious distinction. Patrick lived one thousand years before the Reformation and five hundred years before the split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholicism. In fact the Christian Church structure established by Patrick evolved quite separately from the control of the Papacy, so much so that in the twelfth century Pope Adrian wrote to King Henry II of England and asked him to invade Ireland so that the Irish could be 'civilized'. At the time Henry refused - Ireland wasn't worth the trouble!
Irish Protestants and dual belonging
British settlers 'planted' to Ireland in the 17th century were very different to the native Irish - they spoke English or Scots rather than Gaelic, they lived and farmed differently, they were loyal subjects of the British Crown and they were Protestant rather than Catholic. They were the British-in-Ireland and that sense of dual-belonging continues among the Irish Protestant community to this day.
The majority of Protestant Irish are descended from these 17th century settlers. Although a few native Irish converted to Protestantism, whether out of conviction or an attempt to rise up the socio-economic ladder, the vast majority of the native Irish population remained Catholic.
A society grew up where the members of different religious denominations lived separate lives, rarely inter-married, and where each kept group its own separate identity. Protestants in Ireland generally saw themselves as British citizens, equal to English or Scottish. They were Irish by birth but belonged to the British political and cultural world.This has led to them having a unique and complex sense of identity.
Scots-Irish and the beginnings of St Patrick's Day in America
In the eighteenth century up to a quarter of a million Protestants living in the north of Ireland immigrated to the United States. These were mainly Ulster-Scots or Scots-Irish people. Although St Patrick's Day is a religious holiday in the Catholic calendar, it may come as a surprise to realize that the first Irish Americans to organize public celebrations for St Patrick's Day were from the Protestant Ulster-scots tradition.
The first St Patrick's Day parade ever recorded in the world took place in Boston on 18th March 1737. However, at this time, Boston had no significant Catholic Irish community. The parade was organized by the Irish Society of Boston, a group of merchants and tradesmen who had emigrated from Ulster, the northern province of Ireland. The vast majority of them were members of the Protestant tradition.
In 1780 George Washington allowed his Irish troops to have a holiday from the War of Independence on 17th March. These troops were, again, almost universally of Scots-Irish stock. Obviously, they saw Saint Patrick's Day as an important part of their cultural heritage, rather than an exclusively-Catholic holiday.
Protestants and St Patricks Day in Ireland
In the 18th century, St Patrick was seen as a figure that Irish people of all backgrounds could celebrate. Church of Ireland buildings from this time are often named St Patrick's.
However by the twentieth century a new idea of Catholic Irishness, independent from Britain, was being firmly promoted in Ireland. At the same time Protestants on the island fought hard to maintain their political links with Britain, and they became more reluctant to think of themselves as Irish.
In the fight for what 'Irish' meant, St Patrick was claimed for the Catholics. Protestants retreated into celebrating their 'differentness' from the Catholic Irish on Orange Day, 12th July. This led to two very separate identities based around green and orange as symbols for the two Irish traditions. Mixing was not encouraged and could get very complicated as shown by the song 'The Orange and the Green':
"Oh, it is the biggest mix-up that you have ever seen.
My father, he was Orange and me mother, she was green."
Nowhere was this more evident than in Northern Ireland. This small state was set up in 1921 and had a majority Protestant population, but also a substantial Catholic population. The lines of tribal belonging and demarcation run deep and were deepened by the sustained violence of 'the Troubles' which lasted from 1969 to 1998.
Yet the peace process which has evolved since the Belfast Agreement in 1998 is having a remarkable effect on the Northern Irish Protestant sense of identity. They are beginning to engage once again, with the history and heritage of the island on which they live, as well as with the unique contribution which their ancestors have brought to Ireland.
Saint Patrick is once again coming to be seen as a shared figure. Even the traditional bastions of Northern Irish Protestantism are opening up to hold St Patrick's Day celebrations. A local Orange Hall near where I live is opening its doors on the evening of 17th March for a night of festivities, including Ulster-Scots music and traditional Irish dancing. This would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago, and is a remarkable sign of change in Northern Irish society.
St Patrick as a shared figure
St Patrick's place in Irish Catholicism is assured, but is heartening to see Irish Protestants re-engage with the island's patron saint.
Since as early as 2004 the Orange Order in Ireland has been moving to reclaim St Patrick with celebrations on 17th March. As reported in the Irish News, a spokesman said St Patrick was "one of those rare people whose importance to our island is recognized equally by both main traditions. According to legend St Patrick began his Christian ministry in Ireland over 1,500 years ago here in Co Antrim. As the Order is the province's largest cultural/religious group, St Patrick has a particularly special significance for local Orangemen,".
It is an important point that St Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, not any particular denomination. There is a strong Evangelical tradition among Northern Irish Protestants and this further helps them to engage with St Patrick, as a man who spoke out boldly for his faith.
Also, Patrick was never actually officially canonized as a saint by the Vatican. Like all early Christian saints, his sainthood was conferred on him by popular tradition - in that sense he belongs to all of Christianity, not just the later Roman Catholic church.
What's more, it is often forgotten that St Patrick was born in Britain, and that he came to Ireland on a mission to change the Irish way of life forever. In this sense he has a very real connection with the ancestors of Northern Irish Protestant who came to Ireland from Britain bringing new farming techniques, building roads and towns and schools.
Can Orange mix with Green?
So far, I haven't heard of a joint Green-Orange celebration of St Patricks Day in Ireland. The two traditions seem to be keeping separate for the moment in how they mark the 17th March. In 2005 there was almost a St Patrick's Day Orange Order parade in Cork, by invitation of this city bastion of Irish nationalism. However, it was called off at the last minute, due to controversy in the media.
With all the movement forward into a more peaceful and mutually-respectful society, I would very much hope that it won't be too long before the people of both traditions in Ireland begin to celebrate St Patrick's Day together. What a wonderful legacy that would be for our patron saint - to bring together the Orange and the Green....
Jonathan_cf on August 22, 2018:
"it may come as a surprise to realize that the first Irish Americans to organize public celebrations for St Patrick's Day were from the Protestant Ulster-scots tradition."
It comes as no surprise. Instead of doing serious research before publishing, the only thing you've done is repeat Irish sectarian myths and then sprinkle in a few 'surprises' that are in clear conflict with them. Saint Patrick is firmly in the Anglican tradition, and the Anglican Church of Ireland even claims (and has always claimed) episcopal succession from him. Saint Patrick's saltire, which is displayed on the Union Jack, was previously displayed on the arms of various Irish nobles (who later became Anglican converts) and then as the symbol of the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick, a British chivalric order that is currently dormant. Saint Patrick's saltire is also the symbol of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland -- it doesn't get more Protestant than this.
You're also a victim of "Ulster Scots" myths. In America, the name "Scotch-Irish" was a Know-Nothing invention that was designed to protect and distinguish the naturally-born Protestant Irish from immigrant Catholics (the same Catholics who would one day claim Irish American identity for themselves, despite being a clear minority of the Irish diaspora in the US). Many of these "Scotch-Irish" were Presbyterian "Ulster Scots", and yet many had other backgrounds as well, including "native Irish" Protestants (which included Episcopalians and other denominations, and not just Presbyterian). It has been known for over three decades that the Irish diaspora in America are majority Protestant and that most of these people are not descendants of Ulster Scots.
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on April 27, 2016:
Maybe in future, if I have the time!
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DoveFreexrolo on April 27, 2016:
Have you ever thought about creating an ebook or guest authoring on other websites?
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on April 28, 2015:
Really glad to hear that!
rose on February 21, 2015:
Hi this year in the waterside area if derry both protestant and Catholic communities are coming together and hosting a joint celebration weekend for St Patrick. This will be the first of its kind and people are looking forward to celebrating together.
sligobay from east of the equator on April 08, 2011:
Thanks Marie for a very thorough and thoughtful article. This is certainly a new perspective on St Patrick's Day.
cardelean from Michigan on April 03, 2011:
That was an incredibly well written informative piece on the history of St.Patrick and the Catholics and Protestants. I learned quite a lot, thank you. Congrats on your nomination.
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on April 03, 2011:
Thanks for all the kind comments. This hub was a meeting of my hubbing with by day job - a lot of my job is around helping people in Ireland to move forward to a more open and inclusive understanding of our identity... I hope this hub will go a little way towards that aim!
Elayne from Rocky Mountains on April 02, 2011:
I enjoyed reading about this history. You put it very well. I was in Scotland two years ago and hope to be in Ireland in the near future. Congrats on the nomination.
Deborah Reno from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD on April 02, 2011:
Congratulations on your hubnugget nomination. This hub was fascinating. I never studied the history behind St. Patrick's Day. Not only was your hub well written, it was also well researched. You obviously spent a lot of time gathering information. Thanks for writing.
Michelle Simtoco from Cebu, Philippines on April 02, 2011:
I've heard of St. Patricks Day and wondered about this bit of history. Thanks for a great read. :)
Darlene Yager from Michigan on March 17, 2011:
This is a very enlightening hub for me. I hadn't realized that Protestants had a devotion to St. Patrick. My great grandmother on my father's side came here to the States from Ireland. I don't know exactly what part of Ireland but she was Protestant and hated Catholics. My mother's side just happened to be Green. But that didn't stop my father from pursuing her. He eventually converted to Catholicism even though his mother didn't like it.
They had eleven children together and as siblings do there was some fighting. My father would say that it was no wonder the kids fought with each other with the Orange and the Green mixed we probably fought ourselves.
It is very heartening to hear that Ireland has a Peace agreement and I hope that it continues, Ireland is too beautiful of a country to waste time fighting.
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 13, 2011:
Thanks SilverGenes for sharing your family history - at the end of the day peace comes from individuals deciding, as you said, that love is more important than identity or politics. Long may it continue!
SilverGenes on March 13, 2011:
Marie, thank you for a wonderful article! I am a first generation Canadian (and spent very early childhood back in Ireland) from a mix of the Orange and the Green. My dad was born in Ireland (not yet partitioned) and always hoped to see it one land again. His dad was from County Dublin and his mum from the north so religion was not an issue in his family. Love won out over all. Hopefully, it will continue to do so :)
Emma from Houston TX on March 11, 2011:
Nice documentary,thanks for sharing.
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 10, 2011:
Hi Gaelach - thanks for your thoughtful comment. In my day job I do a lot of work to help Protestants and Catholics understand each other better. Usually they soon realise who much they have in common! I think it is very interesting how St Patrick is starting to be a shared figure in the islands history. I really hope there will be more sharing between orange and green in future - I am optimistic!
Ghaelach on March 10, 2011:
An excellently written work. Your story of the Orange and the Green will open many eyes, and i think that with your depth of research could open some Irish eyes as well. In my life the problem of Catholic/Protestant and Orange/Green was always a delicate taking point. It's nice to see someone writing so clearly over Ireland and St.Patrick. I hope i have read you correct and that many more young people see and hope of a peaceful Ireland as i would like to see. When all said and done the two colours are nice and warm and do go well together. It is sad to see so many folks split by differences, ie. Korea, Cyprus, to just name a few. It's nice to see and hear that Ireland is leading the way and bring it's people together again in friendship and freedom as it once was. lol