This Week In History: St. Patrick’s Day special

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Aerial Photograph: Coast of Ireland. Photo by Kelly Lacy

Whether you are a full-blooded Irishman, have a wee bit of Irish ancestry or are just a big fan of Guinness, everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. In a special edition of this week in history, we will take a look at the real story behind the color green’s favorite holiday and debunk several of the myths we’ve come to know. So let’s dive in! 

On March 17, 461, 1560 years ago, Saint Patrick died in Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland. 

In order to understand the roots of the holiday, we must first take a look at the life of the famed lad himself. For starters, it should be noted that Patrick was not even Irish and not named Patrick at birth. Born instead as Maewyn Succat, Patrick was actually British, having been born to a wealthy Christian family in the Britannia province of the Roman Empire. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped and brought to the Emerald Isle as a slave. 

Patrick escaped captivity and returned to Britannia to become a priest. He later traveled to Ireland as a missionary, converted thousands of Irish to Christianity and established several Catholic parishes. By the end of his life, he was called Patricius, Patrick in English, which derives from the Latin term for “father figure.” While Patrick was largely forgotten at the time of his death, stories were passed down of Patrick’s legendary use of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity, and thus he grew in fame and popularity. 

In several depictions, Patrick can be seen trampling snakes as he was credited for banishing all snakes from the island. This, however, has been embraced as a symbol of Patrick’s banishment of paganism from Ireland, as scientists have largely agreed that snakes would have never come to Ireland in the first place since the waters surrounding it are far too cold for snakes to swim in.  

Interestingly enough, despite being the patron saint of Ireland, Patrick was never formally canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. The canonization process had not been established at the time of Patrick’s death, so Patrick was only recognized as a saint in name. This means that one of the most famous saints in Christianity worldwide is not an official saint. 

If that’s not hard enough to believe, it should also be known that Patrick’s color of choice was blue, not green like the leprechaun would have you believe. Green was adopted as the color of Ireland in defiance of the British royal blue in their fight for independence in the 18th century. It has stuck ever since. 

On March 17, 1762, 259 years ago, the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade was celebrated in New York City. 

While the holiday has origins in Ireland, the festivities around it, specifically parades, are all-American. This first parade, though a far cry from the behemoth it is today, consisted of a few homesick Irish soldiers serving in the British military. As Irish flooded into the U.S., these parades only grew popularity. In order to understand why the Irish came to the U.S., let’s first talk about potatoes. 

The potato was the staple crop of Ireland. The average Irishman ate more than 10 pounds of potatoes per day. When a fungus spread through the potato crops of the Irish countryside, three-quarters of the potato harvests were destroyed for eight straight years in the 1840s and 50s.  

On an island of approximately eight million people, one million died and an additional one million left for greener pastures. While the United States was the chief destination for refugees of the Potato Famine, large droves settled in Britain, Canada, Argentina and Australia. During the Famine years, Irish immigrants made up half of all immigrants entering the United States. Today, more than 32 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. That is seven times the current population of Ireland. 

While these poor Irish were just looking for something to eat, they were hardly welcomed by Americans upon their arrival. In fact, the Irish were despised by American society, with several newspaper cartoons depicting the Irish as apes rather than humans. The Irish were seen as dirty drunks, unable to assimilate to American culture, who were coming to steal jobs from deserving Americans. Sound familiar? 

The Irish were particularly hated for being Roman Catholic. Many Protestants feared that the Pope was trying to invade the U.S. by sending Irish spies to New York and Boston. While this seems ridiculous today, it should be noted that even in 1960, John F. Kennedy had to defend himself from the thousands of Americans who believed he would be a puppet for the pope. 

Corned beef and cabbage, while considered the quintessential St. Paddy’s Day meal is another American invention. The dish has roots in Ireland with Irish immigrants trying to recreate their traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage in American cities. The first Irish immigrants could not afford the steep prices of pork, so corned beef was adopted at the suggestion of the many Jewish deli owners who also lived in urban immigrant neighborhoods.  

Fun fact: this kind of cultural sharing in ethnic communities was fairly common; many historians believe that tap-dancing is a fusion of the Irish jig and West African stepping dances, since poor Irish immigrants and African Americans lived in the same parts of many cities. 

But wait a minute, how did a religious holiday become associated with bars and booze? Well, my friends, the answer is in the question. Since the Irish living in America were devout Catholics, March 17 arrived in the middle of Lent. Since St. Patrick’s Day was excused by the Church hierarchy, Irish Catholics could put aside their Lenten fastings and indulge in some good beer. 

Centuries later, these traditions finally made their way back to the motherland. While pubs had previously been closed in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, they were allowed to open in the 1970s. Seeing the chance to boost tourism, the Irish government in 1996 established a multiple-day festival for St. Patrick’s that lasts to this day. The Guinness company was actually a huge force behind this decision, and they have certainly benefited from this, as an estimated 13.5 million pints of Guinness are sold and consumed every March 17. 

Wow, that was a lot! I will end by wishing a Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all, and to all a good week! 

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