Irish History: Volume VII
St. Patrick’s Home Turf: St. Paddy’s Day in Ireland
We all know the Saint Patrick’s Day stereotypes: lots of green, lots of gold, and lots of Guinness. But that’s our American (or, for as many as 32 million of us, Irish-American,) tradition. How have the Irish marked the occasion over the years?
The truth of it is simple: until the Irish-Americans made it the party it’s become today, St. Patrick’s Day was a religious holiday. It seems obvious when you say it: it’s literally a day celebrating a saint. Traditionally, the Irish spent the morning in church and celebrated in a modest way the afternoon. Though the holiday falls squarely during Lent, Lenten prohibitions were lifted on the day to allow for feasting and at least some mild revelry. The government even took steps to keep it mild: going against the harmful stereotypes that were perpetuated about the Irish people during Ireland’s mass emigrations in the 1800s due to the potato blight, pubs were actually closed on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland (by law) until 1977.
Even after the ban was lifted, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland were overall subdued (leading to the rumor that the Irish don’t celebrate the holiday) until around 1995. With the advent of the internet, the world was expanding rapidly, and the Irish government did its best to increase its appeal to tourists by embracing the high-spirited, secular twist Americans had put on the holiday, starting over a century before. And it worked—Dublin’s parade (pre-COVID) is now a five-day festival and has boasted half a million attendees! Of course, places in Ireland celebrated St. Patrick’s Day the American way (i.e. with a parade) earlier than ’95—it just wasn’t as widely advertised. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland was held in Waterford in 1903, with Dublin not coming around to the celebrations until 1931—1995 was just the year the government got involved!
However, there’s a few misconceptions we need to clear up: first, corned beef and cabbage? An American invention! This “traditional” meal is a 19th century, Irish-American adaptation of a common Irish meal: ham and cabbage. As the Irish immigrants in New York in the 1800s weren’t able to afford ham, they had to make do with hard, salted beef usually used for long sea voyages. They would boil the beef three times in order to soften it and remove as much brine as possible, resulting in the meal we still eat today. The Irish are far more likely to indulge in a full Irish breakfast with tea or a leg of lamb with potatoes and other root vegetables…or maybe some shepherd’s pie—some stereotypes do have their root in truth, after all.
Second, don’t you dare call it St. Patty’s Day! For one thing, Patty isn’t short for Patrick, but Patricia. As the Miami Herald reported in 2018: “Saint Patrick was indeed not a woman nor a hamburger.” In fact, the original, Gaelic spelling of Patrick is Pádraig, accounting for the mysterious appearance of two ds in the correct nickname: Paddy. But, you could also skip the abbreviations full stop—Paddy (among other traditional Irish names such as Mick) were once used as a derogatory names for an Irish person in the not-so-distant past. Might as well give the man his due and just say St. Patrick’s Day!
Lastly, and most importantly: the concept of the “wearing of the green” (also a popular Irish air!) isn’t just to mark your Irish heritage and celebrate it, but a bigger political statement. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the color originally associated with St. Patrick as actually blue, but the green was inspired by his teachings (see this post for more info!) and became a symbol for Irish nationalism against British oppression—starting with the Irish Rebellion of 1789. This event isn’t a light one--an estimated 10-70,000 people died in their fight for freedom. Wearing a shamrock (which is three leaves, not four) on your lapel or even wearing a piece of green clothing was considered a rebellious act in and of itself. In many ways, St. Patrick’s Day’s celebration of Irish culture isn’t just a party, it’s in honor of those who gave their lives for home and country—so maybe leave off on the pinching.
It makes sense that so many places in America go green for St. Patrick’s Day (most famously, the Chicago River every year since 1962, but don’t forget the Empire State building, among many other landmarks) we once shook off the shackles of our British rulers, too! Now that America has more people of Irish heritage than actually live in Ireland, we can have our own traditions to celebrate the Irish diaspora across the country…but it’s still important to bear in mind what this day means for its country of origin. No matter how you choose to celebrate this year: Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit! (Or: A Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you!)
This post is part of a series. Read about the history of St. Patrick's Day in America here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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