For the 50+ Traveler

Saint Patrick’s Day is the world’s most popular national holiday, celebrated with massive parades, parties, and plenty of great food. People love celebrating their Irish heritage -- even if they don’t have any Irish heritage.

In its country of origin, Saint Paddy’s Day isn’t just a day for partying and, ahem, over-imbibing. It’s an important holiday with a rich history, and should you find yourself in Dublin, Belfast, or any other Irish city, you should know what to expect.

Here are a few fast facts about Ireland’s most famous cultural export.

The streets of Dublin on Saint Patrick's Day.

In Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day Is A National Holiday

March 17 is a bank holiday in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Schools are closed, as are some (but not all) businesses. Restaurants and bars may change their hours, but they generally remain open.

In major cities, businesses catering to tourists (for example, pubs) may actually extend their hours. That’s because tourism during Saint Patrick’s Day is predictably big business: More than 100,000 travelers visit Dublin from March 14 to March 18 to partake in the festivities.

A stained glass impression of Saint Patrick.

Saint Patrick Wasn’t Actually Irish, But He Was An Important Part Of Irish History

Born in Britain around 386 A.D., Patrick was enslaved by Irish pirates when he was 16 years old. He escaped from slavery six years later, sailing back to Britain before heading to France to enter the priesthood. In 432 A.D., he returned to Ireland, where he devoted his life to spreading the Catholic faith.

Numerous apocryphal legends popped up around Saint Patrick over the next few centuries. The most popular held that he drove the snakes out of the country and taught the theology of the Holy Trinity by using a three-leaved shamrock.

Unfortunately, there’s not much historical evidence to support those tales. In any case, the saint’s efforts were extraordinarily successful: Today, 78 percent of Irish people identify as Roman Catholic.

Croagh Patrick in Ireland.

You Can Visit The Places Saint Patrick Visited

Throughout Ireland, you’ll find a number of historic and religious sites where visitors can pay homage to Saint Patrick.

Croagh Patrick (Patrick’s Mountain) is perhaps the most famous example. Saint Patrick was said to have fasted at the top of the mountain for 40 days. In 1905, a small church was established nearby, and travelers from far and wide hiked the 4.3-mile path to the summit to follow in Patrick’s footsteps (while getting fantastic views of the Atlantic coast).

Saint Patrick did most of his teaching at his church in Armagh, a city that is now the seat of both Catholic and Anglican archbishops in Ireland. The small town is home to two cathedrals dedicated to the saint, both of which have rich histories, though neither was actually established by Patrick. Dublin also has a Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, established on the site where Patrick allegedly baptized Ireland’s Celtic chiefs.

Saint Patrick's Day in Dublin, Ireland.

Traditional Saint Patrick’s Day Celebrations Are Simple

While the Irish have observed Saint Patrick’s Day for more than 1,000 years, they didn’t always do so with parades. That tradition started in New York City, which held the first official Saint Paddy’s Day parade in 1762.

Saint Patrick’s Day occurs during the Catholic season of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and repentance. While Irish families would sing songs and dance during the holiday, they certainly didn’t hold massive parties -- that part of the modern tradition came from Irish-born settlers in the United States.

Gradually, Ireland adopted the American attitude toward its national holiday, and today, Dublin holds a four-day festival, which is similar in tone to the celebrations that Americans know.

Bacon and cabbage from the Stag's Head.

Corned Beef Isn’t Generally Eaten On Saint Patrick’s Day

On Saint Patrick’s Day, Irish folk traditionally spend time with family, the same way that Americans do at barbecues on July 4. They eat hearty meals, but not corned beef; the true national dish is bacon and cabbage, which you can find at restaurants like Stag’s Head in Dublin.

Depending on where you’re traveling, you might have access to other Irish favorites like lamb stew, boxty (a type of potato cake), and smoked haddock. You can find corned beef in many restaurants, since it’s becoming popular with younger Irish folk, but it’s not exactly a traditional comfort food.

The colors of the Irish flag in Dublin.

People Wear Green, But Not Due To Superstition

Green is unquestionably the national color of Ireland, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in Saint Patrick’s time, the country’s flag was blue. That likely changed during the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641, when commander Owen Roe O’Neill led his men in a war against the English while flying a green flag with a harp. Centuries later, Irish immigrants brought their country’s flag to the U.S., and wearing green gradually became shorthand for Irish pride.

Travel in Ireland during Saint Patrick’s Day, and you’ll see plenty of green, and quite a few shamrocks symbolizing both national pride and Patrick’s religious devotion. However, you won’t find bars serving green drinks (unless those bars cater to American tourists). In fact, prior to the 1970s, Irish law prohibited bars from opening their doors on March 17, owing to the religious nature of the holiday.

Ireland is a stunning destination at any time of year, but Saint Patrick’s Day is an especially great time to immerse yourself in Irish culture. If you’re hoping to party in the streets, you can certainly do so, but if you’re more interested in history, tradition, and culture, you can build a great itinerary to satisfy your curiosity.

Just remember to book your tickets early, since hotels fill up quickly during the first few weeks of March -- oh, and wear something green. Hey, it never hurts.