St. Patrick's Day 2010: It was about church, not Guinness

Guinness sells 10 million glasses of beer daily (but no green beer) and far more on St. Patrick's Day. That's a new phenomenon. Not long ago, all pubs in Ireland closed on St Patrick's Day.

Daniel Munoz/Reuters
A man dressed as St. Patrick poses for pictures as Sydney Opera House is lit with green lights during St Patrick's Day celebrations in central Sydney Wednesday.

Not so long ago, there was no Guinness beer – and certainly no green beer – in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day.

In fact, all the pubs closed on St. Patrick's Day in Ireland. Families attended church and later went for a walk or worked in the garden.

The holiday was exactly that, says Carmel McCaffrey: a holy day.

"When I was a child in Ireland, the pubs didn’t even open. It was a holy day. We went to church," the Irish scholar and former Johns Hopkins professor said in a phone interview from Maryland. "We'd usually just meet up with friends and have a meal. There were no drinks."

IN PICTURES: St. Patrick's Day parades around the world

That's not what you'll hear in Dublin today, as the holiday to remember the British missionary to the Druids switches focus from religion to revelry.

"As long as St. Patrick’s Day has been around, they’ve drunk Guinness," insists Mark McGovern, a Guinness brewery spokesman said by telephone from Dublin.

The company's St. James's Gate Brewery makes 3 million pints of beer a day for domestic and international consumption, and about 10 million glasses of Guinness are consumed daily in 150 countries. "On St. Patrick’s Day, I’m sure it’s more than that," Mr. McGovern says.

Guinness assurances to the contrary, most Irish sources say that only in the past two decades did St. Patrick's Day include alcohol in Ireland. And, the bacchanal roots of the holiday were imported from America.

It's only been a national holiday since 1903, more than 150 years after Boston's Irish community organized the world's first St. Patrick's Day parade in 1737. It became a government-backed festival in 1995 as a way to boost tourism.

According to a government briefing, the festival was created to "offer a national festival that ranks amongst all of the greatest celebration in the world" and also to "project, internationally, an accurate image of Ireland as a creative, professional and sophisticated country with wide appeal, as we approach the new Millennium."

Does St. Patrick's Day boost Ireland's image as a professional and sophisticated country?

Regardless, today Ireland is nearly synonymous with St. Patrick's Day and shamrocks and corned beef. And many Celts are cashing in.

Guinness's St. James's Gate Brewery has certainly benefited from the repackaging of the saint's day. It has become the country's largest tourist attraction, generating more than 1 million visitors in 2009 (just ahead of the Dublin Zoo). Hundreds will pay about $30 apiece to attend a party today at the Guinness Hop Store in Dublin with live music and free drinks for anyone named Patrick, Patricia, or Pat.

"Ireland has an amazing St. Patrick’s Day festivity. Fantastic parades," says McGovern, explaining that the parades and festivities have grown every year. And he says, "For a lot of people, that involves drinking a pint of Guinness."

McCaffrey and others who remember further back, however, will remind us to the contrary.

"Twenty-five years ago, Dublin was the dullest place on earth to spend St. Patrick's Day," Irish author Maeve Binchy wrote in a 2001 opinion article for the New York Times.

"The public houses and bars just did not open in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day. It seems that nobody in the United States ever really believed this. And to be honest, why should anyone have believed it? They saw the Irish in America, disrupting traffic in major cities across the country, painting green lines down the middle of main boulevards, drinking their skulls off."

And now, it's the same in Dublin.

But for some in Ireland, St. Patrick's Day still retains some connection with its namesake. The Irish Catholic head Sean Brady held a special mass today at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh.

Who was St. Patrick? Read more here.

IN PICTURES: St. Patrick's Day parades around the world

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