Whether you’re Irish or not, Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Today’s the day when people around the world get decked out in green to flaunt their Irish pride & celebrate the legacy of St. Patrick. But take a look at the earliest depictions of the famous Christian missionary and you’ll notice something strange: He’s typically shown wearing blue, not green. So, why do we wear green on St. Patrick’s Day?
As difficult as it might be to imagine, Ireland wasn’t always associated with green. In 1541, King Henry VIII, wanting to cement England’s centuries-old reign over the island nation, declared himself king of Ireland & even gave it a new coat of arms: a gold harp against a blue background. More than 200 years later, when King George III established an order of knights called the Order of St. Patrick, blue’s connection to Ireland became even more pronounced: the order’s official color was a shade of sky blue that came to be known as “St. Patrick’s blue.”
Meanwhile, Irish nationalists were looking for ways to separate themselves, politically & chromatically, from the English. The color green first appeared during the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641, when military commander Owen Roe O’Neill brandished a green flag with a harp to represent the Confederation of Kilkenny, which was trying to put an end to Protestant control of the region. Then, in the 1790s, the Society of United Irishmen—a revolutionary group advocating for republicanism—donned uniforms of green shirts, green & white striped pants, and felt hats with green cockades (or rosettes). The era also gave rise to patriotic poems and ballads, many of which used the color green, along with Ireland’s rich natural landscapes, as an emblem of Irish pride & resilience.
Over time, green became strongly symbolic of Ireland in general, and St. Patrick’s use of the (green) shamrock to explain the holy trinity in his teachings had a more lasting influence than his association with the color blue from the Order of St. Patrick. Green became a part of Ireland’s national flag in 1848 and, as droves of Irish immigrants arrived in America throughout the 19th century, they brought with them the tradition of wearing green to celebrate his feast day.
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