Saint Patrick’s Day: More Than Green Beer!
Updated: Mar 14
Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit! Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!
In the U.S., it sometimes seems the main purpose of Saint Patrick’s Day is to drink green beer, catch Mardi Gras beads, and get drunk. Which makes me sad because green beer and lack of sobriety have nothing to do with it. The March 17th holiday is about celebrating Irish identity and culture.
Saint Patrick’s Day was first observed in Ireland about a 1,000 years ago. Up until the mid-20th century, March 17th, to the Irish, was a holy day, not a holiday. It was a Christian feast day and, after the Reformation, the Protestant Irish protested its association with Catholicism by wearing orange in memory of the Protestant British king, William of Orange, who had helped to deposed the Catholic King of England, James II. Dear King Billy created the Irish Penal Code, a long list of laws which, summarized, said “Catholics (read: native Irish) may not live.” More on that in a future post.
At any rate, up until the mid-1970s, Saint Patrick’s Day, for the Irish, consisted of going to Mass then having a traditional meal of bacon and cabbage (not corned beef; that’s an American thing). Now, having a bit of bacon could be quite exciting since St. Patrick’s Day falls in the midst of Lent, a time of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. If St. Paddy’s Day fell on a Friday in Lent, the local bishop could announce a dispensation, allowing good Catholics to eat meat despite normal Lenten proscriptions forbidding it. That’s as exciting as the day got in Ireland up until the 1970s. In fact, the day was such a solemn feast that there even was a law which required all pubs to remain closed on the day. (Ach! What a sober time that was!)
So, how did St. Patrick’s Day become a celebration? Blame (or thank) the Americans. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in Colonial America in what I find a most surprising place: St. Augustine, Florida. In 1601, the pastor of the colony (then held by the Spanish) organized a parade in honor of St. Patrick. The pastor just happened to be Irish.
In 1772, another parade was organized in NYC by homesick Irish soldiers serving in the British army. In the three decades which followed, the popularity of the parades and celebrating the holiday increased, fueled mostly by Irish immigrants to the U.S. The Hibernian Society and Irish Aide Societies were formed and each put on parade featuring bagpipes and drums each year.
By 1848, several Irish Aide societies combined their efforts and put on a huge parade in NYC. This became an annual event and now NYC puts on the biggest St. Patrick's Day parade in the U.S. with over 150,000 participants and over 3 million observers. Other big parades (with over 10,000 participants) are held each year in Boston, Chicago, and Savannah as well. It was the Potato Famine, though, and the over one million Irish immigrants who sought refuge in the U.S., that cemented St. Patrick’s Day as a day for joyful celebration.
Prior to the 1850s, the majority of Irish in the U.S. were Anglo-Irish or Scots Irish and, more importantly, Protestant. By the mid-nineteen century, a nativist movement had sprung up in America. Its proponents passionately believed that the U.S. should be occupied solely by Caucasian (preferably Anglo) Protestants. They considered anyone else “not real Americans.” The nativists were highly anti-immigration, seeing “foreigners” as a threat (Sound familiar?). The Famine Irish were the first large group of immigrants to the U.S. who were poor and, worse, Catholic. Many working class Americans feared these new Irish would steal their jobs. After all, the Irish were starving, desperate for money, and willing to work for almost nothing (there was no minimum wage at the time).
Initially, the new immigrants did find work. The men helped build railroads and dig canals. Bosses saw them as cheap, expendable labor. As friends explained to me when I lived in New Orleans (where a large canal was built by Irish laborers), owners didn’t want to use slaves because they were valuable property. It was best to use an Irishman because, if he died, there was another waiting to take his place. Irish women worked as well. My own great-grandmother and her sister, when they first arrived in the U.S., got jobs as domestics and took in laundry and sewing on the side.
But anti-Irish sentiment rose quickly in mid-19th century America. Nativists burned churches and Catholic schools in Irish neighborhoods and started riots in their neighborhoods as well. Soon, classified ads read “Help Wanted. No Irish Need Apply.” Magazine and newspaper covers depicted the Famine Irish as drunken gorillas. A third political party, the Know-Nothings, hostile to the Irish, sprung up and gained power in many states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut. At its height, the Know-Nothings (aka the American Party) controlled six state legislatures, eight state governors, around 100 congress members, and 1,000 local politicians. The party’s main platform was anti-Irish and anti-Catholic, promising to send these new Irish back, making America free of Irish Catholics.
This racism and hostility bonded the Famine Irish who began celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in earnest as a way to show pride in their culture and their Irish identity. Eventually, the Irish Catholics and their descendants gained power through joining the police force and entering politics (even though the Know-Nothings had tried, unsuccessfully, to ban Catholics from holding office and keep the Famine Irish from voting). In time, they assimilated into American culture and contributed to U.S. history and society in many ways.
In the mid-1990s, government and business leaders in the Republic of Ireland began celebrating St. Patrick’s Day too with parades, music festivals, and so forth as a way to promote Irish culture (and increase revenue through tourism).
So for this March 17th, celebrate the Irish. Skip the green beer and Mardi Gras beads but do wear green. Please don’t wear orange as William of Orange and the Orangemen tried to wipe the Irish race off the face of the earth. (More details in a future post). Enjoy corned beef and cabbage, if you like, but consider adding some traditional Irish dishes, such as colcannon (potatoes and cabbage) and soda bread. Maybe read a bit of Irish history, e.g., about the Penal Code, the Famine, or the Easter Rising. Definitely enjoy some Irish trad. (real Irish music as opposed to Irish-American songs such as “When Irish Are Smiling” or “Take Me Home Again, Kathleen”—which, incidentally, was written by a German immigrant). On YouTube, you’ll find plenty of traditional Irish songs by the Chieftains, Tommy Makem, the Clancy Brothers, or (if you’re a bit of a rebel) The Wolf Tones. Finally, maybe experience the native language by studying a bit of Irish on Duolingo (it’s free) or listening to it spoken on YouTube.
Beannacht Naomh Pádaig Ort (the blessings of St. Patrick on you!) Slán go fóill! (Bye for now!)
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