If you are of Irish heritage and living in America, you’re in good company! There are some 35 million Americans who are of Irish descent or who have some Irish blood running through their veins. And of course, like any good Irish man or woman living in the U.S., you’ll likely be celebrating St. Patrick by wearing plenty of green, enjoying a hearty meal of corned beef and cabbage and perhaps even attending a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Plus, if you are Irish or not, many Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by visiting their favorite Irish pub and downing a few pints of Guinness or other Irish beer.
But what about the Irish who reside on the Emerald Isle? How did they traditionally celebrate and how do they celebrate today? In honor of this most Irish of all holidays, I thought it would be fun to look at the history of St. Patrick’s Day and to compare how the Irish in Ireland and in America celebrate this day. But first, let’s go back to the beginning and find out how St. Patrick’s Day originated.
St. Patrick’s Day or the Feast of St. Patrick is observed on March 17th and is both a cultural and a religious celebration honoring Patrick, the major patron saint of Ireland. March 17th is the traditional death date of St. Patrick and the holiday is known in the Irish language as Lá Fhéile Pádraig or ‘the Day of the Festival of Patrick.’
You may not know this, but Patrick was not born Irish! Perhaps this is why so many people identify with his holiday, even if they don’t have any proper Irish heritage to claim. Patrick was actually the son of a Roman soldier who lived with his family in Roman England. His Romanized name was Patricius, but he later became known as Patrick. When he was a boy of 16, Patrick was captured by pirates in south Wales and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he was imprisoned for six long years.
One day, he managed to escape and he got away to Britain and then to France, where he joined a monastery and studied for twelve years under the tutelage of St. Germain who was the bishop of Auxerre. Finally, Patrick became a bishop himself and as a bishop, he had a life-changing dream. One fateful night, he dreamed the Irish people were calling to him begging him to return to Ireland and to tell them about God.
He received the Pope’s blessing and set out for the land in which he had been imprisoned. He was very successful at winning the Irish people’s hearts for God and converting them from paganism. He was an active preacher and traveled throughout Ireland, even converting some among the Irish royal families. Of course, this did not sit well with many, especially the Celtic Druids and Patrick was arrested several times. Every time, he managed to escape and he made his way all through Ireland for twenty years, setting up numerous monasteries, schools and churches.
Some of Patrick’s writings survive including his Confession, several letters and most notably, the Lorica or Deer’s Cry also known as the ‘Breastplate’ a famous hymn which is also used as a prayer but which may have been written at a later period.
By the 7th century, Patrick’s exploits had become the stuff of legend and those legends, all with a core of truth, continued to expand. For example, Patrick placed a strong emphasis on the Holy Trinity, and it is said he used the three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Another legend has it that Patrick put God’s curse on all the venomous snakes of Ireland and drove them into the sea. Indeed, except for zoos, there are no venomous snakes in Ireland. In fact, there are no snakes at all in Ireland, although scientists believe this had more to do with the timing of ancient geological events than with St. Patrick.
After twenty years of service to his adopted Ireland, Patrick died on March 17th, AD 461 and March 17th became his Feast Day, which was originally a Catholic holy day set to both honor Patrick and to celebrate the baptization of Ireland by this remarkable man who was a former slave and prisoner.
Gradually, especially in America, this religious Feast Day has evolved into a more secular celebration with parades, green beer and partying. But for the Irish who remain in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has remained a much more sober observance than that of their American counterparts.
Traditionally, pubs were closed in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day and the holy day began for most people with a visit to church. The Irish held to the ‘pubs closed on St. Patrick’s Day’ rule for a long time with pubs in Ireland finally allowed to open on St. Patrick’s Day in the late 1970’s. But you would be hard pressed to find much green beer in Ireland as the Irish leave that to the Irish pubs in the U.S. and Canada.
In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day begins for most Irish who are practicing Christians with a visit to church, as it is a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation. Some sixty Roman Catholic and Anglican churches and cathedrals in Ireland bear St. Patrick’s name. Instead of wearing all green, many Irish will wear a small bunch of shamrocks pinned over their right breast. After church, a meal of meat and vegetables with roast and mashed potatoes is generally served. And no, corned beef and cabbage are not on the menu! This tradition got started in America by poor immigrants who substituted the cheaper bacon and cabbage for the traditional meat and potatoes of their homeland.
Although St. Patrick’s Day parades were never a part of Irish celebrations in the homeland, their popularity eventually spread from the U.S. back to Ireland. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York City in 1766 and it was many years later in 1995 when the city of Dublin adopted the practice to encourage tourism! The Dublin celebration has become a five-day St. Patrick’s festival featuring many events such as plays, concerts and art exhibits as well as a parade.
In the United States, the St. Patrick’s Day fun and festivities get underway, sometimes many days before the actual holiday, especially in cities where there are a large number of Irish immigrants such as New York City, Boston and Savannah, Georgia. The good people of Savannah take their Irish heritage seriously and the city’s official St. Patrick’s Day parade committee page even sports a countdown timer to the next parade!
Celebrations in Savannah include a greening of the fountain in beautiful Forsyth Park a week before the actual holiday, as well as a parade on Tybee Island, twenty minutes outside of the city proper. The Sunday before the holiday, a Celtic Cross Mass is observed and another Mass on the Feast Day itself, followed by the main parade through the streets of Savannah, rain or shine! Savannah’s parade is the third largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the United States.
A St. Patrick’s Day Festival on River Street as well as City Market gets underway in the three days surrounding the actual holiday with restaurants and bars, beer and food vendors lining the cobblestoned passageways with samples of green goodness to consume. By evening, the streets are filled with happy celebrants enjoying Irish music from multiple stages beginning early in the day and continuing all night. If you would like to get a taste of Irish music and you can’t make it to Savannah this year, the Irish and Celtic Music Podcast is featuring a special episode in honor of St. Patrick, with special highlights of the Best Celtic Music of 2016.
If you want to bring some real Irish cooking to your table this St. Patrick’s Day, try this recipe from Epicurious for Bacon and Cabbage Soup. Their recipe was adapted from chef Paul Flynn of The Tannery in Dungarvan, Ireland. You will need:
1 (1/3-pound) piece Irish bacon (available at specialty foods shops) or Canadian bacon
3 tablespoons unsalted butter (I love Kerrygold butter from Ireland!)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into a 1/2-inch dice
5 1/2 cups chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
4 bay leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 small head Savoy cabbage, cored, thinly sliced, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Just follow these simple instructions to make this creamy, delicious Irish-inspired meal for your family.
And however you choose to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day...with a visit to a church, a hearty Irish meal, listening to some great Irish music or indulging in a Guinness or a fine Irish whiskey, I’m sure Patrick would approve! Happy St. Patrick’s Day and Erin go Bragh!