St. Patrick’s Day and Beer: A History of Holiday Drinking

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Beyond the shamrocks and corned beef, you might have noticed something else at every St. Patrick’s Day celebration: drinking. And lots of it. So how did this particular holiday become associated with such ill-advised consumption?

To answer that question, one should begin by looking into the person to whom the day is dedicated.

Who Was St. Patrick?

Saint Patrick is the most well-known of the Irish patron saints but he was actually born in England. He was taken from his home, enslaved, and brought to Ireland. He eventually escaped and returned to England to become a cleric.

In spite of having been a slave, St. Patrick desired to return to Ireland. He stated that in a vision, the whole of Ireland called out to him in one voice “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

St. Patrick did indeed return and brought Christianity to the pagan Irish. But one of the most well-known legends about St. Patrick is inaccurate. The patron saint didn’t really drive the snakes out of Ireland. For starters, there aren’t any snakes in Ireland. The icy waters that surround the Emerald Isle are just too cold for the reptiles to have migrated there in the first place. Instead, it’s likely the story is a parable for St. Patrick having driven out paganism from Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Day and Its Popularity in America

On March 17, 461, Saint Patrick, a Christian missionary, bishop, and apostle of Ireland, died at Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland. But since the 17th century, he is forever remembered with an annual feast day celebrated on the anniversary of his death.

One symbol associated with the holiday, the shamrock, was worn on clothing in honor St. Patrick. Apparently St. Patrick used its three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity to the Irish. Over time, that tradition of wearing shamrocks eventually evolved into simply wearing green clothes.

While St. Patrick’s Day began as a feast day, the holiday has evolved into a celebration that includes Irish culture and traditions. And although the holiday originated in Ireland, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in the United States. And during the 1840s, when hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrated to America to escape the potato famine, the holiday became bigger and more popular than ever.

Holiday Binging

There’s an old Irish saying: “There are only two kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were.”

That seems to be particularly true in the United States. While traditionally a more solemn occasion in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a more raucous affair in the United States. Everyone loves a good party and it’s not so surprising that even those who aren’t of Irish descent want to participate. But why is there such gluttony and drunkenness?

Because it’s a feast day, Christians are allowed to set aside their Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol. And that’s why copious consumption has become forever associated with St. Patrick’s Day.

But in the United States, St. Patrick’s Day has turned into all-day drinking marathon where partygoers get utterly annihilated. Year after year there are stories and videos of bar brawls and street fights. Just start scrolling through YouTube and relive glorious battles of days gone by.

Of course, such drunkenness isn’t without consequences. The cops arrive, engage the drunkards, and the crowd cheers on.

Besides the fights, St. Paddy’s Day is known for other crimes as well. DUIs, property damage, sexual assault, amongst others, are frequent on the holiday. One infamous festival, the “Blarney Blowout” attracts thousands of people to the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. And in 2014 there were 73 arrests for a litany of crimes.

Spending small fortunes at restaurants and bars or stocking up on booze for house parties is a small boon to businesses. According to a report on WalletHub, a little over half of all Americans will participate in St. Patrick’s Day and spend $4.4 billion.

But then there’s the collective hangover that’s felt across the country the next day. According to an article on The Altantic, a loss of productivity following a holiday of nationwide drunkenness costs the country an average $162 billion annually.

Green Beer and Guinness

Obviously, people will drink just about anything on St. Patrick’s Day but we’ll focus solely on the beers.

One brew, in particular, is as green as the holiday itself. So where did the novelty of green beer originate?

Apparently, the dyed brew first appeared in New York City back in 1914. Dr. Thomas Hayes Curtin was a city coroner in New York City. His family emigrated from County Carlow when he was just five years old. He was educated in New York and earned a medical degree. By 22 he was already a surgeon and worked as a coroner’s physician in the Bronx.

It’s only natural that an Irish-American should be the one to invent green beer. And according to an article on Philly.com, it was Curtin who unveiled the green brew at a Bronx social club.

One eyewitness account described the occasion: “Everything possible was green or decorated with that color and all through the banquet, Irish songs were sung and green beer was served. No, it wasn’t a green glass, but real beer in a regular colorless glass. But the amber hue was gone from the brew and a deep green was there instead.”

That report came Charles Henry Adams as an article from his syndicated “New York Day By Day” column. Filed one week after the green beer’s unveiling, he wrote: “All the doctor would tell inquisitive people was that the effect is brought about by one drop of wash blue in a certain quantity of beer.”

It turns out that the “wash blue” is actually a poison derived from an iron powder that was used to whiten clothes.

Today, this odd Irish American’s invention lives on. But instead of poison, a few drops of green food coloring are used to give the beer its emerald hue. And while it looks atrocious to some (and does nothing to enhance its flavor), perhaps a green-colored beer was always inevitable.

Another beer that’s prevalent during St. Patrick’s Day festivities is Guinness. Besides the obvious, how did this particular Irish stout become synonymous with the holiday? In a word, marketing. And lots of it. Beginning in the 1930s, Guinness sought to reenergize flatling sales with a series of advertising campaigns. The illustrations by John Gilroy were extremely popular and even today can be found in bars throughout the US. Guinness used radio jingles in the 1940s and began airing television commercials in the 1970s. The beer was marketed as a counter to the popular mass-produced lagers of the day.

Today, Guinness is one of the most widely-distributed beers in the world. Interestingly enough, the UK consumes more of the stout than the people of Ireland. Nigeria is next on the list followed by the United States.

Craft Beers for St. Patrick’s Day

While sometimes unavoidable, one doesn’t have to drink green beer or mass-produced stouts. There are a number of craft beers appropriate for St. Patrick’s Day. Here are a few suggestions plucked from an article on craftbeer.com:

Beer Style Brewery ABV
CB’s St. Patricks Ale American Red Ale CB’s Brewing Company 5.2%
Nightlight Irish Stout Irish Dry Stout Circle Brewing Company 4.7%
McLuhr’s Irish Stout Irish Dry Stout Dillon Dam Brewery 5.0%
Lucky SOB Irish Red Irish Red Ale Flying Dog Brewery 5.5%
Conway’s Irish Ale Irish Red Ale Great Lakes Brewing Co. 6.3%
Dragoons Dry Irish Stout Irish Dry Stout Moylan’s Brewery & Restaurant 5.0%
Patty’s Irish-Style Cream Ale Cream Ale Rohrbach Brewing Company 5.6%
Uncle Steve’s Irish Stout Irish Dry Stout Short’s Brewing Company 5.5%
Sprecher Redhead Ale American Red Ale Sprecher Brewing Company 6.0%
Mother’s Milk Irish Stout Irish Dry Stout St. Elias Brewing Company 3.8%
Hoggetowne Irish Red Irish Red Ale Swamp Head Brewery 5.5%

And there’s no reason to just choose one. After all, it is St. Patrick’s Day. So why not try them all? Sláinte!

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