St. Patrick's Days bros, courtesy of Flickr user istolethetv
According to ancient Irish tradition, St. Patrick’s Day marks the annual veneration of the island’s patron saint. In Ireland, it has become a day of parades, family feasts, and celebrations of Irish cultural heritage over a pint or two down at the pub. In more recent American edits to the Celtic holiday, the United States version of St. Patrick’s Day is an annual celebration of getting fucked up—a day of slurring “Erin go Bragh” at your green-covered bros while floating in a Guinness- and urine-fueled sea of drunken chaos.
And when I say fucked up, I mean exceptionally fucked up. While drunk-driving deaths in the United States dramatically increase on St. Patrick’s Day in the same way that they do on other alcohol-driven holidays (such as New Year’s Eve or the Super Bowl), there's a slew of morbid statistics out there surrounding this "Irish" celebration: 80 percent of all drunk driving deaths on St. Paddy's involve drivers who are nearly twice the legal limit. The day immediately after the bro-infested event is one of the primary American business days when employers are on the lookout for absenteeism and hung-over employees, a side effect that costs the US economy an annual $160 billion in worker productivity.
With more people of Irish descent living in the United States than the current population of Ireland—but with less of an awareness of what it actually means to be Irish—our separation from the holiday’s religious roots has bastardized St. Patrick into the patron saint of anarchy. At the epicenter of this destruction, the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s annual “Blarney Blowout” party attracted some 4,000 revelers last weekend. During the revels, an off-campus apartment complex had a gathering that resulted in 73 arrests, “violence and fights, injuries, severe alcohol intoxications, sexual assaults, excessive noise, property damage, and violence toward the police and community members.” To describe it using official statements, the day-long partying was “extremely disturbing and unsafe.”
Photo via Flickr user MarkScottAustinTX
A similar chaos descends each year in Champaign, Illinois, where the annual “Unofficial” St. Patrick’s Day celebration draws an estimated 14,000 visitors from nine states, 15 cities, and 47 colleges, bringing with them similar extremes of illegal behavior.
But the St. Patrick’s debauchery isn’t just a thing for college students. During the late 2000s, Hoboken, New Jersey, was the epicenter of St. Patrick’s mayhem. In 2011, the last year of the parade, 34 people were arrested, and 136 were transported via ambulance. Police reports cited citizens holding up various residents of an apartment building at knifepoint, attempting to steal bottles of Grey Goose from a bar, and being beaten to a pulp by “men wearing green T-shirts and jeans.” After the city released a statement about the “inability to protect their spectators, bands, and participants,” the beloved parade was canceled.
Further south, in 2012, Baltimore's version of the celebration was marked by hundreds of teens “swarm[ing] downtown, keeping one step ahead of police while battling from corner to corner, mostly with fists, sometimes with knives… Dozens of officers called in from across the city scrambled to keep up with the attacks, shutting key intersections and trying to push the youths away from the center of tourism.”
With massive police forces steeling themselves for ragers in parts of peaceful Canada, one can’t help wondering why St. Patrick’s Day in America has transformed into an occasion of extreme drunken violence. While I don’t think our forefathers planned for this much vomit when they held the country's first-ever St. Patrick’s parade, in Boston, in 1737, evidence seems to indicate that this epic disorder has deep historical roots.
According to an 1867 report in the New York Times, police and a “truckman” were assaulted during “the St. Patrick’s Day Riot,” during which “swords and spears [were] in use again.” Put more succinctly by an 1874 headline, “Death Rate Increased by the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.”
Photo via Flickr user MarkScottAustinTX
But what makes today different from our nation’s past is that even non-Irish-descent Americans are getting in on the action. In its early years in this country, the celebration was primarily limited to Irish enclaves in Boston and New York. In 2014, 97 percent of us plan to celebrate the holiday in some shape or form, meaning a lot of noobs are going to get far too tipsy when the bars open at the crack of dawn on March 17. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol consumption costs the U.S. economy $224 billion a year. On your typical day, about three quarters of this comes from the just 15 percent of the US population that is prone to binge drinking. But on your typical St. Patrick’s day, when everyone decides to be “Irish,” we all become the 15 percent, and the damage to property and persons increases proportionately.
What is fundamentally harder to trace is how the celebration of Irish pride became such an international drinking phenomenon. Aside from revealing much on the celebration’s ties to a groundswell of Irish social and political strength during the 19th and 20th centuries, when more and more families came to the US and sought a sense of community and place, I uncovered very little as to why we drink to horrifying excess on this holiday.
Still looking for answers, I turned to my anonymous friends on the internet. According to one thoughtful Yahoo! Answers contributor, Americans celebrate St. Patricks Day in this way “Because getting drunk is lots of fun :) And it’s a good excuse to do so haha.” In explaining our particular Yankee twist on the holiday, another commenter claimed that “many Americans are proud of their roots and St. Patrick’s day gives them a chance to celebrate that,” therefore making it “an excuse to party and get drunk.” But even deeper insights on the connections between this holiday and life can be gleaned from an anonymous Irish man lurking on different page of the interwebs: “Who needs Saint Patricks Day. It’s Saturday night.. Go get rat arsed. Sure you’ll be a long time dead.”
Maybe we’re all just a bunch of alcoholics.