Blarney-Busting After St. Patrick’s Day
Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit! I hope you had a wonderful Saint Patrick’s Day. For this week’s post, I thought it would be fun to explore ten American beliefs and misconceptions about the Irish and Irish-related topics. Sit back and enjoy a little blarney-busting.
1. Just like Valentine’s Day was invented by Hallmark to sell merchandise, the Irish created Saint Patrick’s Day to have an excuse to party and drink. Nope. Actually it was Americans and Irish immigrants in the U.S. who started Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations. The original purpose was to show pride in one’s Irish identity at a time (the mid-19th century) when there was tremendous anti-Irish sentiment from white Protestants in the U.S. who considered themselves “real Americans.” Irish Catholics who came to the U.S. to escape the Potato Famine were the first massive group of poor immigrants to this country and they weren’t happily received. In addition to the “Help Wanted: Irish Need Not Apply” ads, natives (as they called themselves) responded to the Irish immigrants by setting fire to their churches and neighborhoods as well as depicting them as drunken gorillas. A political party, the Know-Nothings, ran a presidential candidate simply on the platform of ridding the U.S. of all Irish. It was in this context that Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations, parades, the wearing of the green, and the singing of traditional Irish music were born.
Of course, the saint’s feast day had been celebrated in Ireland for centuries, but it was a solemn holy day of obligation. Well into the 20th century, March 17th was not a time to party for the Irish. It was a day to go to mass. By law, the pubs were closed that day. After a while, though, the American celebration of the saint’s day traveled across the Atlantic, and parades and parties sprouted in Ireland too. By the way, until this migration happened, the Irish associated the color blue, not green, with Saint Patrick.
2) Saint Patrick was Irish. The patron saint of Ireland, Patrick, was not Irish. As a teenager, he was brought to Ireland as a slave. Later, he escaped to the continent and became a priest and missionary. In a vision, he heard the voices of the Irish calling to him for help. He returned, preached the gospel, and converted the Irish to Christianity. So what nationality was he? There is some debate. Most scholars say he was either a Roman Briton or a Welshman.
3) Shamrocks are the National Symbol of Ireland. Without a doubt, shamrocks are associated with Saint Patrick, both in the U.S. and in Ireland. Legend claims that the saint used the three-leafed plant to explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Also, each year, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic of Ireland gives a gift of shamrocks to the U.S. President as a gesture of friendship and goodwill between the two counties. This tradition started in 1952 when John Hearne, the Irish ambassador to the U.S., sent a box of shamrocks to President Harry Truman with a message saying that he hoped the relationship between the two countries would “continue to be on a good and effective level for generations.” It’s a beautiful tradition which has continued each year ever since. That said, the shamrock is not the national symbol of the Republic of Ireland. The harp is. If you’ve got a speck of good Irish blood in you, you’ll know why.
4) If you capture a leprechaun, you’ll get rich. Oh, there’s none so skilled at blarney than a leprechaun! These wee faeries can talk their way in or out of anything, and you’d be a fool to believe a word they say. So, if you capture a leprechaun (and good luck with that) and he promises to lead you to his pot of gold, he’s lying. There are many tales of these Good Folk playing tricks on humans. One is to give a human some gold or silver coins with a promise of more to come later. But as soon as the leprechaun gets away from his captor, the money turns to ashes or vanishes altogether.
5) Faeries are small, fun, and helpful. They can be—but don’t count on it. A group called trooping faeries are quite social, travel as a court, like to have fun and are, usually, benevolent towards humans. Even so, Irish faeries are capricious, easily offended, and can be vindictive. Trooping faeries, as well as some solitary faeries, e.g., leprechauns, clurichauns, and grogochs, are small in stature, but not all Irish faeries are wee folk. The Sluagh Sidhe, the Dullahan, and banshees, among others, are human-sized. Then there are the shape-shifters, such as the Puca and water horses, who can be as small or tall as they like since they can appear in any form they wish. The majority of Irish faeries (and Celtic faeries in general) don’t have wings. Some, such as the Sluagh Sidhe, can be malevolent and deadly. It’s best not to mess with them. By the way, traditionally, the faeries are referred to both respectfully and obliquely by using terms like the Fair Folk or the Gentry. Don’t call them “Little People” unless you’re planning to have misfortune for the rest of your very short life.
6) Banshees are bad. This heinous slander arose from U.S. movies, television, and video games which depict banshees as predatory monsters who kill people with their screams for the sheer joy if it. This is wrong in its entirety. They are compassionate, ministering faeries. The word banshee comes from the Irish language: bean (woman) and sidhe: (faerie or faerie mound). These faeries attach themselves to a particular family then warn that family of the impending death of one of its members, most commonly by wailing. Banshees have also been known to knock (in my family, it’s said that three unexplained knocks in the house is the banshee warning of a death). Often, the banshee is heard rather than seen, but there are stories of banshees appearing, pointing towards a house, and weeping uncontrollably. Banshees sometimes also show up at funerals. Irish belief used to be that a banshee’s presence at a funeral indicated that the deceased was someone either of high importance or of great holiness. Having a family banshee is an honor and a matter of pride. Not all Irish families have one.
7) Irish people have fair skin, red hair and blue eyes. Again, nope (except for the fair skin). Red hair was brought to Ireland by the Vikings. A typical Irish person has brown hair and green or hazel eyes. Nowadays, the question of what an Irish person looks like really depends on how one defines the term “an Irish person.” Does it refer to a certain ethnicity or does it mean those people who were born and raised in Ireland? People have immigrated to Ireland from other countries and their descendants, born in the country and citizens of Ireland, consider themselves—with good cause—to have more of a right to refer to themselves as “Irish” than any U.S. born person with Irish ancestors does.
8) The Irish speak Gaelic. Yes and no. It’s complicated. Most people on the island of Ireland speak English. In the Republic of Ireland, there is a region known as the Gaeltacht. People in this area have Irish as their first and main language. Some people (inside and outside the Gaeltacht) are bilingual, speaking both Irish and English. Irish is the name of a language, just as English is the name of the language spoken by the English, Spanish is spoken by the Spanish, and French is the language of the French. That said, Irish is a branch of the Gaelic family of languages, which also includes Scots Gaelic and Welsh. Just to confuse things further, in Irish the name of the language is Gaelige (pronounced gwail-guh), which simply means “the language.”
9) Corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage is a typical Irish meal. Potatoes, yes. To my parents, it wasn’t dinner unless there were potatoes (and bread). And the Irish people I know can’t get enough of potatoes. An Irish comfort food is a sandwich filled with potato crisps (preferably Taytos, not Lays). Corned beef, on the other hand, is not at all Irish. It’s an American thing. So why is it part of the Saint Patrick’s Day meal? No one really knows. Perhaps it’s because corned beef used to be an inexpensive cut of meat and the immigrants from the famine who started this business of celebrating on the saint’s day were poor. As for cabbage, if you mix green cabbage into mashed potatoes you’ll have an authentic Irish dish called colcannon.
10) Saint Paddy’s is fine; Saint Patty’s is not. In the U.S., around March 17th, there are many signs and t-shirts which read, “Happy St. Patty’s Day!” As an American myself, I understand this. Often, Patty is used as a nickname for Patricia which, of course, is the feminine version of Patrick. However, I have encountered a large number of Irish people (meaning people actually from Ireland) who react to St. Patty’s with anywhere from scoffing at the ignorance of Americans to foaming at the mouth in umbrage. They say that the word patty is for hamburgers, and that the correct nickname for the saint is Paddy. Why? Because the Irish version of the saint’s name is Padraig. So there, Americans; you’ve been told. For my part, Padraig, Patrick, Patty, Paddy, or Pat, I’m fine. Say what you like. Just don’t give me green beer!
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