Sunday, March 10, 2013

St. Patrick's Day—More Than Green Beer and Irish Coffee

March 17—St. Patrick's religious feast day and the anniversary of his death in the fifth century.  A date that falls during the Christian season of Lent.  The Irish have observed this date as a religious holiday for over a thousand years.  Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade took place in the U.S., not in Ireland.  Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762, (when we were still a British colony).  In 1848, several New York Irish aid societies united their parades to form one New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade.  Today, that parade is the world's oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States with over 150,000 participants.

Today, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated by people of all backgrounds in the United States, Canada, and Australia.  Although North America is home to the largest celebrations, it has been celebrated in other locations far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore, and Russia.

In modern day Ireland, St. Patrick's Day has traditionally been a religious occasion.  Until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated pubs be closed on March 17.  In 1995, the Irish government began a national campaign to use St. Patrick's Day as an opportunity to promote tourism.

Symbols and Traditions

The shamrock was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland, symbolizing the rebirth of spring.  By the seventeenth century, it became a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism.

Music is often associated with St. Patrick's Day and Irish culture in general.  Since the ancient days of the Celts, music has always been an important part of Irish life.  The Celts had an oral culture where religion, legend, and history were passed from one generation to the next through stories and songs.

Banishing snakes from Ireland has been associated with St. Patrick.  A long held belief says St. Patrick once stood on a hilltop and with only a wooden staff managed to drive all the snakes from Ireland.  The fact is the island nation of Ireland has never had snakes.

Every year on St. Patrick's Day the traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage is consumed.  Cabbage has long been an Irish food, but corned beef only began to be associated with St. Patrick's Day at the turn of the century (circa 1900).

Belief in leprechauns probably comes from Celtic belief in fairies, tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil.  Leprechauns are only minor figures in Celtic folklore, cantankerous little men known for their trickery which they often used to protect their fabled treasure.  The cheerful, friendly image of the leprechaun is a purely American invention created by Walt Disney in his 1959 movie, Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

There are over 36 million U.S. residents who claim Irish ancestry.  This number is almost nine times the population of Ireland.

Chicago is famous for a somewhat peculiar annual event: dyeing the Chicago River green.  The tradition started in 1962, when city pollution-control workers used dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges and realized that the green dye might provide a unique way to celebrate the holiday.  That year, they released one hundred pounds of green vegetable dye into the river—enough to keep it green for a week.  Today, in order to minimize environmental damage, they use only forty pounds of dye, making the river green for several hours rather than days.

Green beer, certainly associated with St. Patrick's Day here in the United States, is NOT an Irish creation.  Purists claim that Arthur Guinness would turn over in his grave if anyone attempted to add green food coloring to the traditional Irish brew.  Green beer is most likely of American origins.

And Irish coffee?  The forerunner of today's Irish coffee was said to have originated at Foynes' port (the precursor to Shannon International Airport on the west coast of Ireland near the town of Limerick) one miserable winter night in the 1940s.  Joseph Sheridan added some whiskey to the coffee to warm the arriving American passengers, proclaiming it to be Irish coffee.

A travel writer named Stanton Delaplane brought Irish coffee to the U.S. after drinking it at Shannon Airport.  He worked with the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco to develop the perfect drink.  The Buena Vista Cafe started serving Irish coffee on November 10, 1952, and continues to serve large quantities of it to this day starting from the time they open in the morning for breakfast until they close at night.  And any of you who have had your morning ham and eggs at the Buena Vista have seen the coffee cups lined up along the bar and the bartender at the ready, prepared to fill them with the beverage of choice for the breakfast crowd.

So, here's to everyone celebrating on March 17 whether Irish or not.  Enjoy your corned beef and cabbage, green beer, and Irish coffee.


Paul McDermott said...

Dia dhuit, Shawna!

It's clear, you've done a lot of research for this blog entry! Hope you won't mind if I add a few details to your work?

When I was young, corned beef was cheap. Now it has become one of the most expensive sandwich fillings you can ask for in the UK!
As a result, you're more likely to get Colcannon served in Ireland (mash, cabbage and sometimes onion or spring onion) with salt bacon e.g. Dublin Coddle, corned beef being too expensive!

I'd also like to make it clear that the Celtic tradition for oral history is NOT a thing of the past, but still alive and well! Especially away from the larger towns and cities, the most important person in the community is the seanch'ai or storyteller. Usually the Eldest Resident in the village, he was 'trained up' to the job by HIS Grandfather, who inherited the role from HIS Grandfather in turn. You can ask how I know this: the answer is very simple. As first-born male of MY generation [1950] I was trained up to the role by MY Grandfather ...

Go maire tú Lá Fhéile Pádraig!
[Happy St. Patrick's Day]

Shawna Delacorte said...

Paul: Thanks for the interesting information. I've only been to Ireland a couple of times and each trip was much too short. I'd love to spend more time there. How marvelous that you had the experience of being trained in the oral history traditions.

Thanks for stopping by.