Dressing the Part for St Patrick’s Day

The 17 March 2022 sees the grand return of parades and festivities in honour of St Patrick’s Day. Whether they are parade participants or enthusiastic onlookers, we can certainly rely on the celebrating crowds to dress for the occasion. As in previous years, we will no doubt see the colour green take centre stage as the preferred colour of the day. Dressing the part for the feast day is no new phenomenon, however, as crosses, shamrocks and other emblems have long been worn in honour of the patron saint.

St Patrick’s Day Parade, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, c. 2000. Photograph: Tom Munnelly, National Folklore Collection.

Outside of St Patrick’s Day celebrations, the colour green was seldom chosen for clothing, as it was generally thought to be an unlucky colour. Accounts from the 1937-1939 Schools’ Collection attest to this, as in an account from Treanboy, Co. Galway:

When going on a journey a red-haired woman is said to be the most unlucky person one could meet and in bygone years it was a custom to abandon the journey when such a person was met. To meet a person wearing green clothes was thought unlucky too. Many people think that green is a very unlucky colour at any time.’

CBÉS 246: 126

In particular, many accounts from the Schools’ Collection mention that green was not to be worn when getting married, as the colour was thought to bring grief and even tragedy:

It is thought that May is an unlucky month for marriages and that green is an unlucky colour, so this month is avoided and green is never worn. 

Freshford, Co. Kilkenny. CBÉS 866: 319
Parade in Dingle, 17 March 1969. Photograph: Jane Almqvist, National Folklore Collection.

Plenty of accounts attest to the wearing of green emblems for St Patrick’s Day, however. One account states that green ties were worn by men and green ribbons worn in the hair by young girls. Another states that green ribbons and green handkerchiefs were adorned by those celebrating and a third account tells us that green stockings were worn. An element of green, particularly green ribbon, was also included in the badges or crosses made or bought for the festival. A few different styles of crosses were made from various materials: cardboard or paper crosses adorned with ribbons or medals, carefully drawn paper-crosses and even crosses made from willow, in a similar style to the crosses made on St Brigid’s Day.

Silk and velvet little ribbons were sewn onto a cardboard cross covered with ribbon. A nice little bunch of ribbons were sewn onto each end of the cross and the nicest bunch was kept for the centre of the cross. On St Patrick’s day the children wore these crosses on their shoulders. They were very fond of these brightly coloured crosses. The old people saved up pieces of ribbon from hats and bonnets and kept them for favourite children coming to the house, for the purpose of making these crosses.

Ballyhorgan East, Co. Kerry. CBÉS 408: 179

The crosses above, from Cos. Tipperary (CBÉS 572: 403) and Kerry (CBÉS 428: 201a), are stated to be boys’ crosses. The colours on these kinds of crosses were said to be created by using egg yolk for yellow, the juice of a plant for green and pricking the finger to add some red. The circle is then cut out and worn on St Patrick’s Day.

Whatever colour or garment you choose to wear to mark the day and its festivities, we wish a happy St Patrick’s Day to you all. Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh ar fad!

This post was researched and written by Ailbe Van Der Heide, National Folklore Collection.

Further Reading:

Danaher, K. (1972) The Year in Ireland. Cork: Mercier Press.

O’Dowd, A. (2019) ‘The colours we wore’ in Fitzgerald, K., Ní Fhloinn, B., Ní Urdail, M., O’Connor, A. (eds.) Life, Lore and Song: Essays in Irish Tradition in honour of Ríonach Uí Ógáin / Binneas an tSiansa’: Aistí in ónóir do Ríonach Uí Ógáin. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 238-253.

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