St. Patrick’s Day traditions — my how they’ve changed over the years

We all love St. Patrick’s Day, the harbinger of spring, with its parades, shamrocks, corned beef and cabbage and legendary fairy folk. Some of us, however, are a bit hazy about the details, even without the green beer.

St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was born a Welshman named Maewyn, sometime around 375 A.D. Although both parents were Christians, he was a non-believer until age 16, when a group of marauders kidnapped him and took him back to Ireland. During the next six years of slavery, Patrick spent a lot of time examining his lifestyle and finally saw the light.

After escaping to Gaul (France), he joined a monastery and determined to convert Ireland to Christianity. He became Ireland’s second bishop, an apparent charmer who won converts by the score and traveled through the countryside founding monasteries, schools and churches. By the time he died on March 17, 461 (or thereabouts), he had converted Ireland to Christianity.

Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity, telling his flock how the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit could all exist as separate elements of the same entity. In tribute, his followers adopted the custom of wearing a shamrock on his feast day. Although he is credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland, this wasn’t much of an accomplishment since the country never had many snakes to begin with. Some believe the legend refers to the serpent symbol of the pagan Druids.

Patrick’s feast day has become a popular holiday in the United States largely due to the sheer numbers of Irishmen and women in this country. America boasts an Irish population more than eight times the four million souls who still reside on the Emerald Isle.  According to the U.S. Census, nearly 31 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, although the actual number is probably greater if the Scots-Irish and the Anglo-Irish (those who wear orange instead of green on March 17) are included. This makes the Irish the second largest ethnic group in the United States, outnumbered only by the Germans. Other countries with large Irish populations include Argentina and Canada.

Although the Scots-Irish began immigrating to the U.S. in Colonial days, the major exodus from the mainland took place during the Irish potato famine, which lasted from 1845 – 1851 and returned in 1879. Nearly a million Irish refugees fled to the U.S., forming the first mass migration to this country in history. Many landed in Boston, where the descendents of the Puritans proceeded to make their lives miserable, posting inhospitable signs for job seekers that read, “No Irish Need Apply.” Irishmen who arrived during the American Civil War often found themselves conscripted into the Union Army the minute they got off the boat.

In earlier days, the Bostonians had welcomed the northern Irish, many of whom were more British than Irish. In 1737, the Charitable Irish Society of Boston (a Protestant charity) held the first known St Patrick’s Day observance in this country. The first parade took place in New York City, March 17, 1766 and included a contingent of Irish soldiers. Today, the largest holiday parades are held in Chicago, Savannah, and New York City, respectively.

Despite the prejudice and stereotyping, the Irish not only survived but flourished, eventually gaining political power through sheer numbers. A long list of Irish Americans have contributed substantially to literature (F. Scott Fitzgerald), politics (John F. Kennedy, Ronald Regan, Bill Clinton), labor organization (Mary Harris Jones), theater (John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore) music (Bing Crosby, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey), art (Georgia O’Keefe) film (Walt Disney, Bill Clinton, George Clooney, Mariah Carey, Chris Byrne, Harrison Ford), law (William Brennan, U.S. Supreme Court Justice), TV (Conan O’Brien) and countless other fields.

The Irish are a musical folk, and many of their songs have become part of American culture. Among the best known are It’s a Great Day for the Irish written in 1940 for a movie starring Judy Garland, who just happened to be Irish herself. Another great Irish-American song, O Danny Boy, was written by Englishman Frederick Weatherly around the turn of the 20th century, and taken from an old Irish aire. Other popular Irish ditties include Irish Lullaby, When Irish Eyes are Smiling, Green Grow the Lilacs, I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen and Whiskey in the Jar.

The term “Black Irish” originated in the United States and commonly refers to dark brown or black hair appearing Irish persons in contrast to the light brown, blond or red hair color stereotype. According to a recent Irish study, more than 40 percent of the population has dark brown hair, another 35 percent has medium brown hair and 3 percent have black hair, which would seem to nullify this perception.

Until 1903, St. Patrick’s Day was considered a religious holiday in Ireland rather than a national holiday, and until recently, all the pubs were closed on March 17. In 1996, the Irish government spearheaded the first major attempt to use the St. Patrick’s Day to showcase Irish culture by holding a five day festival in Dublin, which is attended by nearly half a million people. The Roman Catholic Church moves the feast date when March 17 falls during Holy Week.

Although the shamrock is the major symbol of St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish also have given us a few interesting creatures from their mythology to add to the celebration. The leprechaun, for example, usually takes the form of cantankerous and mischief-making old men. Cobblers or shoemakers by trade, they are supposedly keepers of treasure crocks. According to legend, if someone keeps an eye fixed upon the leprechaun, the creature cannot escape; the moment the eye is withdrawn, he vanishes.

In 1959, Walt Disney released a film called Darby O’Gill & the Little People, which introduced America to a cheerful, friendly leprechaun more like the Keebler elf, a purely American invention that has become an easily recognizable symbol of both St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland.

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