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IRELAND’S FRENCH CONNECTION - From St. Patrick to the Irish Tricolor

TODAY is Saint Patrick’s Day – or as you would say in French La Fête de la Saint-Patrick, or Saint-Patrice.

So, if you are looking forward to sipping (or shooting) some Irish whiskey – of which France is the biggest importer after the USA – check out some interesting ties between France and the Emerald Isle.

First, let’s get some other notions about St. Patrick out of the way before we head to France. St. Patrick did not banish the snakes from Ireland. After the last Ice Age, snakes never returned to the Emerald Isle. In fact, there is only one reptile native to Ireland, and that is just a common lizard.

Neither is there proof that Patrick used the three-leaf shamrock to impart the doctrine of the Trinity to the fifth-century pagan Irish. The first such reference is from a botanical catalogue published in 1726. Neither is there evidence that it was Patrick who combined pagan and Christian imagery into the Celtic cross.

Nor was Patrick actually Irish. Nor was he canonized by a Pope. Nor was his real name Patrick.

None of it matters. The true story of St. Patrick, born Maewyn Succat, is better than the myth. Likely born in today’s Scotland or Wales in the late 4th century, Patrick was a Romano-Briton, but he supposedly had French heritage too – it is believed his grandmother was from the north-west town of Touraine in Gaul.

Captured by Irish raiders as a 16-year-old in northern Britain, Patrick was taken across the Irish Sea by these pirates and sold into slavery. Escaping from six years of bondage after receiving a spiritual vision, Patrick traveled south to France and went about mastering Latin and learning Christian theology for years before he was ordained a priest and then a bishop.

The island on which he trained as a priest is called the, one of the two Isles de Lérins near Cannes. Legend has it that while on the island, he designed a chapel in the shape of a clover leaf on the site of the current Chapel of the Holy Trinity. Local historian Jacques Cessin told Nice-Matin, the foundations showed it to have had a straight nave with three round chapels coming off of that.

The claim is not so far-fetched – the 4th and 5th centuries were the heyday of the Isles de Lérins as a famous center of Christian learning. Patrick’s French journey is widely believed by the Irish, who often visit the island to pay homage to St Patrick. It is also stated as a fact by the Irish Department for Foreign Affairs, who proclaim on their website that St Patrick “trained in France before coming back to Ireland to spread the message of Christianity.”

Around 433 A.D., Patrick returned to Ireland against the wishes of his family. His mission, baptizing the Irish pagans, ordaining priests, abolishing slavery, and building schools, churches and monasteries, would last the final 30 years of his life in Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated annually on March 17th, the anniversary of his death in 461. The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. On St. Patrick’s Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived and people would dance, drink, and feast.

When did the St. Patrick’s Day Parades Begin?

Since around the ninth or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing the Catholic feast day of St. Patrick on March 17th. However, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place not in Ireland but in America. A St. Patrick’s Day parade was held on March 17, 1601 in a Spanish colony in what is now St. Augustine, Florida. The parade, and a St. Patrick’s Day celebration a year earlier were organized by the Spanish Colony's Irish vicar Ricardo Artur.

More than a century later, homesick Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched in New York City on March 17, 1772 to honor the Irish patron saint. Enthusiasm for the St. Patrick's Day parades in New York City, Boston and other early American cities only grew from there.

The American Irish soon began to realize that their large and growing numbers gave them political power. They started to organize, and their voting bloc, known as the “green machine,” became an important swing vote for political hopefuls. Suddenly, annual St. Patrick’s Day parades became a show of strength for Irish Americans, as well as a must-attend event for a slew of political candidates.

It was emigrants, particularly to the United States, who transformed St. Patrick’s Day into a largely secular holiday of revelry and celebration of things Irish.

Boston held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, followed by New York City in 1762. The Kansas City St. Patrick’s Day parade – said today to be the 6th largest in the country – started out strong in 1873 but by 1891, anti-Catholic sentiment drove it to a close. It wasn’t until 1973 that it was brought back to life. Since 1962, Chicago’s annual dyeing of the Chicago River green has been a major attraction. When city pollution-control workers used dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges, they realized that the green dye might provide a unique way to celebrate the holiday. That year, they released 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into the river–enough to keep it green for a week. Today, in order to minimize environmental damage, only 40 pounds of dye are used, and the river turns green for only several hours.

The Irish flag was a French gift

Today, nothing seems more Irish than green and orange. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the flag of Ireland could be considered its most famous import.

Ireland was not always known by the shade of kelly green that we know today. For most of the country’s early history, it was known by a shade of blue called “St. Patrick blue.” That’s why Ireland’s royal standard (created in 1542) is a blue field emblazoned with a golden harp. A similar flag lives on today as the Presidential Standard of Ireland.

Inspired by the American and French revolutions, the Irish wanted parliamentary reform and created the Society of United Irishmen (SUI). Green had become associated with revolution during the 18th century, so the SUI represented themselves with a green variant of the Irish royal standard

While the SUI flag gained popularity among Irish Catholic reformists during the Rebellion of 1798, Irish Protestants who were loyal to England joined the Orange Order. The Order was named for King William of Orange, a Dutch Protestant ruler who overthrew the Catholic James II.

The Rebellion of 1798 ultimately ended in the defeat of the SUI, but the flag would remain a powerful symbol of Irish nationalism through the Easter Rising in 1916.

The roots of the current Irish Tricolor flag can be traced to an 1830 meeting of Irish nationalists who were celebrating the most recent French Revolution that restored the French Tricolor. Green, white, and orange cockades were made for the event, similar to those that sparked the creation of the French flag. However, the use of green, white, and orange wouldn’t reach widespread recognition for almost another two decades.

During a trip to Paris in 1848, Thomas Francis Meagher, the leader of another Irish nationalist group known as the Young Irelanders, received the first Irish Tricolor flag from a group of French women sympathetic to their rally for independence. Meagher presented this flag later that year at another gathering celebrating yet another French Revolution and explained that the green represented Irish Catholics, the orange represented Irish Protestants, and the white represented a hope for peace between the two.

The Tricolor finally came to prominence in the Easter Rising of 1916, another rebellion against English rule. On the morning of April 24, 1916, more than 1000 volunteers and members of the Irish Citizen’s Army took over key locations in Dublin, including the General Post Office. The post office became the headquarters for the movement and two Irish Tricolors were flown above it. While the week-long rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, it allowed the Tricolor to become the symbol of a new, revolutionary Ireland. It would become the banner for the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) that ultimately gained Ireland its freedom from England.


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