It’s the oldest and most widely consumed alcoholic drink in the world, and it’s been with humans since we started ‘civilizing’ ourselves.
Though beer likely originated in the lush grasslands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, it is clearly a global product now, and has been for centuries, having spread the way humans have always spread their innovations: migration, conquest, and war.
Over time, the tradition of beer brewing spread to Europe, most famously in modern-day Germany, where William IV, Duke of Bavaria, adopted the Reinheitsgebot (purity law), possibly the oldest food quality law still in use today.
Eventually beer brewing made its way to Ireland. And this time of year, thoughts inevitably turn to two great tastes that taste great together: beer and St. Patrick’s Day.
Likely the most famous of Ireland’s patron saints, St. Patrick was not himself Irish. He was born in Britain, and then captured and taken by Irish pirates to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping back to his home (where he eventually became a cleric).
Later, St. Patrick returned to Ireland to spread his faith, perhaps compelled by a vision of the people of Ireland calling him. Legend holds that he used the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the trinity. Whether that was true or not, depictions of St. Patrick often show him holding a sprig of shamrocks (which is why the plant is so closely tied to St. Patrick’s Day).
Originally a feast day marking the saint’s death, St. Patrick’s Day has evolved into a celebration not just of St. Patrick but of Irish culture and traditions in general. One of those traditions is—you guessed it—drinking beer.
One reason for this is a fluke of the calendar: St. Patrick’s Day falls during the Christian season of Lent, which calls for fasting or abstaining from certain foods, drinks, or activities. These restrictions are lifted on St. Patrick’s Day, leading to a spirit of indulgence (and overindulgence).
As Irish people migrated to America, they brought their cultural and religious traditions with them, and St. Patrick’s Day became an occasion to celebrate Irish heritage. In fact, Irish Americans held the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston in 1737.
Mass migration caused by the Potato Famine of the 1840s increased both the number of Irish people in America and likely their nostalgia for Ireland. St. Patrick’s Day was perfectly suited to bring joy to a population that needed some, during a liturgical time when they needed a chance to cut loose a bit.
These days, March 17 is a mix of things: a religious holiday for those who observe; a cultural holiday for the people of Ireland, people of Irish descent, people who aren’t Irish at all, and people who lie about being Irish; and a reason to party for those who need one.
Regardless of your motivation, St. Patrick’s Day is a perfect time to raise a glass and say sláinte (that’s Irish for “CHEERS”)!