St Patrick, the national saint of Ireland, was a fifth-century missionary, credited with spreading Christianity in Ireland. His feast day – St Patrick’s Day – on 17 March is both a national and a religious holiday in Ireland. In recent years, St Patrick’s Day has become a global celebration of Ireland and Irishness. As a result, after St Nicholas (Santa Claus), Patrick is arguably the most widely known saint in the world.
In the 1680s, an English traveller in Ireland, Thomas Dineley, noted that Irish people wore special crosses on the feast of St Patrick. Known as St Patrick’s Crosses, these were homemade decorations of embroidered silk and, in later years, of paper and ribbon, which were worn on the chest or shoulder in honour of the saint. The tradition has long since died out. Instead, many people today wear a shop-bought rosette or ribbon – usually green or green, white and orange in colour and featuring a shamrock or harp – on St Patrick’s Day.
St Patrick’s Crosses were also popularly worn by the Irish overseas. In 1713, Jonathan Swift – the Irish author of Gulliver’s Travels – wrote that, on St Patrick’s Day, the Mall in London – then a fashionable promenade – was “so full of crosses, that I though all the world was Irish”. On 17 March 1766, Count Dermot O’Mahony, Spanish Ambassador to the Court of Vienna, hosted a celebration in honour of St Patrick and invited everyone with Irish connections as guests. The event was attended by important officials and military leaders, many of whom had Irish surnames, “who, to show respect to the Irish nation, wore crosses in honour of the day, as did the whole court.”
By the 1800s, St Patrick’s Crosses were being made for or by children; adults instead wore a sprig of shamrock in honour of the saint. Over time, the cross developed into a square or circular badge, made of card, coloured paper, ribbon and other materials. The badges, measuring about 10cm across, featured a single or double cross in the centre. They were further adorned by adding in colour and decorations, such as rosettes, bows, tassels, and emblems of Ireland. Some were simply made, while others were lavishly decorated. Made in the run up to St Patrick’s Day, they were worn on the chest or shoulder, or as a cockade on caps, on the saint’s feast day. In some places, the crosses continued to be worn until Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March, when they were burned.
It is clear from the Schools’ Folklore Collection of the late 1930s that the tradition of making and wearing St Patrick’s Crosses had all but died out across Ireland as it was being written about in the past tense.
“About forty years ago all the little girls wore St Patrick’s Cross on St Patrick’s day. It was made by sewing a piece of coloured ribbon, across round cardbord. The principal coloured blue and white, these are the colours of St Patrick’s cross Green ribbons were later put in and in the end whoever had the most and the best colours. They measure about three inches from side to side. They were made at home by the father or mother”. (Corry, Co. Westmeath)
“When I was a young girl I always wore a St Patrick’s Cross on the 17th of March. It is made from a piece of cardboard round in shape covered over with green paper. There are four pieces of coloured paper generally white, yellow, red and blue, put in the shape of a cross and sown to the cardboard. The piece of cardboard was usually about four inches in diameter”. (Ballyadams, Co. Laois)
“St. Patrick’s Cross is made of different coloured ribbons which are sewn on paper. All children used wear them on their shoulders on St. Patrick’s Day in honour of the Patron Saint”. (Creewood, Co. Meath)
“St. Patrick’s cross used to be made with ribbon on paper for the children to wear on St. Patrick’s day”. (Prison East, Co. Mayo)
How to make a St Patrick’s Cross
St Patrick’s Crosses were made of a variety of materials so you don’t need any special art and craft supplies. Make use of any recyclable materials that you may have lying around the house, such as empty cereal boxes, scrap fabric, and leftover wool, twine or thread.
- Child-friendly scissors
- Craft glue
- Stiff card
- Coloured ribbon, or any scrap fabric
- Coloured paper, or white paper coloured in or painted
- Coloured wool, twine or thread to make tassels
- Tissue paper
St Patrick’s Crosses, based on examples from the National Museum of Ireland. Illustrated by Allan Cavanagh
- Decide whether you want a square or circular badge.
- Cut your backing board from card, such as a cereal box or paper plate.
- Add a cross to the centre of your badge, using coloured ribbon, fabric or paper. The cross can be x-shaped or plus-shaped.
- Remember, there is no one way to decorate a St Patrick’s Cross, so use your creativity and have fun adding Irish emblems (shamrock or harp), bows, tassels, and other ornaments to make your unique badge.
- Finish off by making short cuts or v-shaped notches at regular intervals along the edges of your badge.
- Wear your cross on St Patrick’s Day, or hang it up in your home as a decoration.
Kevin Danaher (1972) The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs; Thomas Crofton Croker (1839) The Popular Songs of Ireland; Mannanaan Mac Lir, (1895) ‘The Folk-Lore of the Months. II’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, pp. 553-557