Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and his feast day is the Seventeenth of March.
Clonmacnoise Crozier, 1993.Courtesy of An Post [MS 4672]
It is celebrated across the world, wherever Irish people gather: from Dublin to Derby to Dubai and from Belfast to Barnsley to Brisbane – and all points in between. Birmingham has a long history of celebrating this day, Thomas Finigan observing the practice amongst Irish immigrants in 1838 [MS 3255 Journal of the Rev. T.A. Finigan].
Birmingham Grand Theatre of Varieties. Irish and Proud of It. 1916.
These were informal, self-generated affairs, but from 1869, formal events were held at Birmingham Town Hall. Music Halls also staged entertainments, such as the revue ‘Irish and Proud of It’, shown at the Grand Theatre of Varieties on Corporation Street, in 1916. Populist entertainments like this chimed with some Irish but for others the simplistic portrayals of evictions and caricatures of drunken Irish strengthened their resolve to have their culture and experiences represented appropriately. Such sentiments were perhaps strengthened, given the revue’s performance just weeks before the Easter Rising in Ireland ushered in momentous changes to Anglo-Irish relations.
In today’s generally tolerant atmosphere, there is less sensitivity over community representation, with self-parody now playing a part in the City’s St Patrick’s celebrations. These last for up to two weeks, this year’s festival having been launched on the Sixth of March with a range of events (large and small) scheduled until beyond St Patrick’s Day. The main feature of this programme is the St Patrick’s Parade, which has a proud history, being the first in Britain [in 1952, beating London’s event by 45 minutes!]. Despite an absence of over 20 years from 1974, it has developed from 1996 to be counted as the third largest in the world after those in Dublin and New York.
What makes 80,000 people stand for hours in dreary March weather in dreary Digbeth to watch a parade? Why does a procession of [amongst many other things] vintage tractors and over-sized leprechauns excite so many and bring them back year after year? There are no simple answers, but underpinning the complex reality is a combination of the long standing devotion of many Irish people to the memory of Saint Patrick with the urge to celebrate and promote their Irish identity, wherever they may find themselves. The Parade showcases components of Irish culture, heritage and sport, giving snapshots of each which can be examined in more detail at various events throughout the Festival.
St Patrick’s Parade, Birmingham  Courtesy of Jim Ranahan. [MS 4672]
Cynics see St Patrick’s Day as just one more element in the phenomenon known as ‘Marketing March’ where the celebration is commercially exploited along with events including the Six Nations Rugby Championship, Cheltenham horse racing festival and [even] Red Nose Day. Whilst Irish people are willing participants in all of these events, the more thoughtful recognise that the crux of St Patrick’s Day continues to be something worth nurturing. Running in parallel with the public, organised celebrations are informal, often private gatherings of friends and family, at home or in small venues.
St Patrick’s Day remains at heart a religious festival and whilst contemporary society in Ireland and across the Irish Diaspora is no longer so overtly religious, many people still recognise this element of the celebrations. The Parade’s opening Mass may not be as well attended now and the days of it ending at St Chad’s Cathedral are long gone, but many people still sing the hymn ‘Hail glorious Saint Patrick’ with a feeling of gratitude for his recorded decision to trust and minister to the Irish [Patrick was a Briton, kidnapped by Irish raiders, who escaped and subsequently returned to support Christianity amongst a mainly pagan Irish society]. The customary wearing of shamrock still reminds many people of Saint Patrick’s legendary use of the plant to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity. For many years the ceremonial highlight of St Patrick’s Day was the arrival via Aer Lingus of a consignment of shamrock from Dublin, to be blessed at St Chad’s Cathedral for distribution amongst congregations. Private devotions to the Patron Saint by their nature cannot be quantified, but are undoubtedly still observed in the City.