Thinkpiece: Our Man On The Ground In New York
As a proud Irishman, I've always held Saint Patrick's Day near and dear to my heart. Recently, having moved to New York, I had the opportunity to attend the famous New York City Saint Patrick's Day parade, and while I was excited to see our Irish culture celebrated abroad, I couldn't help but notice the overwhelming commercialisation of the holiday. I want to address commercialisation and explore ways to use Saint Patrick's Day celebrations to promote authentic Irish heritage and sustainable actions.
The Origins and Evolution of Saint Patrick's Day Celebrations
The celebration of Saint Patrick's Day can be traced back to the early 17th century, when it was first observed as a religious feast day on March 17, the death anniversary of Saint Patrick. In 1631, the Vatican officially recognised the day as a feast day, further solidifying its importance in Irish history.
The holiday gained popularity in the United States in the 18th century, thanks to the large number of Irish immigrants who brought their traditions with them. The first recorded Saint Patrick's Day parade took place in New York City on March 17, 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the British army marched through the streets to celebrate their Irish heritage. This parade laid the foundation for what would become an annual tradition, not only in New York City but also in other cities across the United States with significant Irish populations.
During the 19th century, the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1849) led to a significant increase in Irish immigration to the United States. As the Irish-American community grew, Saint Patrick's Day celebrations evolved, incorporating secular elements alongside the religious aspects of the holiday. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, parades, music, and cultural events became central to the festivities, with cities such as Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia hosting their own annual Saint Patrick's Day parades.
The transformation of Saint Patrick's Day into a more secular celebration can be attributed to the Irish-American community's desire to showcase their pride in their heritage, as well as to assert their identity in a new country. As a result, the focus of the holiday shifted from its religious origins to a broader celebration of Irish culture and history, which continues to be the hallmark of modern Saint Patrick's Day celebrations.
Commercialisation of St. Patrick's Day
In modern times, however, the commercialisation of Saint Patrick's Day has become increasingly evident. Businesses capitalise on the holiday by offering products such as green beer, green bagels, and green milkshakes. For example, multinational fast-food chain McDonald's has its annual Shamrock Shake, a green mint-flavoured milkshake, which has become synonymous with the commerciality of Saint Patrick's Day, despite having no genuine connection to Irish culture.
These are not necessarily negative in and of themselves, and there is no doubt about the importance of the occasion economically, with Americans spending around $6 billion on Saint Patrick's Day each year. It is just unfortunate however, that a significant portion of this money goes towards disposable decorations, clothing, and accessories featuring shamrocks, leprechauns, and other stereotypical Irish symbols.
This commercialisation has led to negative environmental impacts, such as waste and pollution from disposable plastic products and excessive consumption of alcohol. For instance, the Chicago River is dyed green every year for Saint Patrick's Day, and although the dye used is claimed to be environmentally friendly, concerns have been raised about the potential long-term effects on the river's ecosystem. Moreover, the holiday is notorious for generating considerable waste, with discarded plastic cups, straws, and other single-use items littering streets and overflowing in landfills after celebrations.
Using Saint Patrick's Day to Promote Authentic Irish Heritage and Sustainable Actions
To counteract commercialisation and honour our roots, it's essential to reconnect with authentic Irish traditions. We should instead focus on embracing Irish music, dance, literature, and folklore,
as well as our deep connection to our rich landscape. By doing so, we not only preserve our heritage but also create a more meaningful celebration.
Furthermore, we can promote sustainable practices during our own celebrations in Ireland. Choose eco-friendly decorations and alternatives, and support local, sustainable businesses and artisans. These actions not only benefit the environment but also contribute to the local economy.
Actions Being Taken for a More Authentic and Sustainable St. Patrick's Day
The Green Roots Project has launched several initiatives and actions that focus on reducing the carbon footprint of Saint Patrick's Day celebrations while raising awareness about Irish heritage and the environment.
The Green Roots Project has partnered with Bray & District Chamber, Killarney Parade Committee, and Sligo Parade Committee to promote sustainability during their St. Patrick's Day festivals. We have developed a carbon footprint calculation for each parade and set targets to reduce these footprints in future celebrations.
In collaboration with EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, The Green Roots Project hosted a special exhibition over St. Patrick's Day weekend in 2022 and 2023. These exhibitions, which took place at the CHQ Building in Dublin's Docklands, showcased artwork from the 'Grow Your Green Cloak' campaign, featuring contributions from students and artists across Ireland.
In 2022, The Green Roots Project worked with the Sallins community in Kildare to create a prototype Climate Positive Parade with sustainability as its core message. This small-scale event, which focused on nature-based activities, aimed to produce minimal emissions and waste while raising awareness of Sallins' biodiversity and giving back to the community and the environment.
The parade's theme was 'Sallins Biodiversity,' and all costumes were either created in a specific workshop using materials diverted from landfills or homemade from repurposed or recyclable materials. Participants grew shamrocks in recycled containers for the event, and all participation was on foot, with no fossil-fueled entries or stages requiring electricity. The event concluded with a Zero Waste Picnic, a tree-planting and seed-sowing ceremony, and biodiversity games hosted by the Sallins Nature Explorers.
With the support of Sallins Tidy Towns, The Green Roots Project aims to expand this Climate Positive Parade in the coming years, serving as an inspiration for other communities to embrace sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices during Saint Patrick's Day celebrations.
The origins and evolution of Saint Patrick's Day celebrations remind us of the importance of our rich Irish heritage. As we address the commercialisation of the holiday, let's use this opportunity to promote authentic Irish culture and sustainable actions. Encourage others to celebrate Saint Patrick's Day with authenticity and sustainability by supporting organisations that promote Irish culture and history, volunteering in their communities, and reducing their environmental impact. Together, we can ensure that future generations continue to honor the true spirit of Saint Patrick's Day.