It might surprise you to learn that Belfast’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade is a relatively recent invention – in fact St Patrick’s Day has only been recognised as a public holiday here in Northern Ireland since 2000. Our American guests could be forgiven for assuming that we have a long history of celebrating our patron saint’s day with a big party, but in fact Saint Patrick’s Day parades became established in the USA in the 18th century (the earliest recorded one was held in 1601 in St. Augustine, Florida, according to this fascinating article in the Washington Post) but did not spread to Ireland until the 20th century.
It’s not that we ignored Saint Patrick’s Day. After all, it was the one day when you were allowed to break Lent and could eat and drink what you liked! At the start of the 20th Century, it was celebrated throughout Ireland and in 1903 Westminster passed a law to make it a bank holiday (meaning that certain businesses, including banks, were closed). However after partition, differences quickly emerged in how the day was celebrated North and South. The new Irish Free State made it a public holiday (meaning that EVERYONE got the day off) in 1921, though they spoiled the fun slightly in 1925 by passing the Irish Free State licensing act which meant that all the pubs were shut for that day. Amazingly, this law was only repealed in 1961!
Up north on the other hand, Saint Patrick’s Day became a rather low key affair, and by the 1950s there were even suggestions made to the Northern Ireland Government that it might be wise to abolish it as a bank holiday. This idea was rejected, but for many people, Saint Patrick’s Day was just business as usual, with many schools dropping it as a holiday and most shops staying open.
And that was how it stayed until the 1990s – low key apart from a few small local events such as the annual Church of Ireland pilgrimage (really more of a two mile stroll) between Saul, where St Patrick built his first church, and Downpatrick, where he is believed to be buried. NI Screen’s Digital Archive has a short clip of the 1959 pilgrimage and it looks a very understated affair. A 1992 editorial in the Belfast Telegraph drily noted that “a casual visitor to Ulster would need to be very perceptive to realise that this is Saint Patrick’s Day. Our celebrations are so muted as to be invisible. Yet across the border, March 17 is an occasion for national rejoicing by people and government.”
The nineties, however, saw the day start to assume greater importance in the north, with sustained efforts to promote it through cross community events and interdenominational celebrations. St Patrick’s flag has flown from Belfast City Hall to mark the day since 1994, and by 2006 Belfast celebrations had developed into a major festival organised by the city council. At the 2006 parade, children were handed multi-coloured shamrocks by council workers, as green shamrocks were apparently viewed as unacceptable by some unionist councillors.
The company responsible for the parade we see today is Beat Carnival (formerly known as the Beat Initiative). They’ve been involved since that first 2006 festival, creating the floats, props, sculptures and costumes and working with Belfast City Council to put on a spectacular show every year. So if you’re in Belfast for St Patrick’s Day, make sure not to miss the Belfast Parade (or our tours!)