As did so many Irish immigrants after the potato famine in Ireland, in 1930 my Dad came through Ellis Island with his parents and younger brother. Growing up as the daughter of an Irish-born father, I can’t remember ever celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Irish Soda Bread, corned beef and cabbage (we called it a “boiled dinner”) and Irish whiskey were served and enjoyed all year long. Wearin’ o’ the green? Never heard that phrase growing up. Shamrocks, leprechauns, pots of gold … where did all this come from?
St. Patrick’s Day was a religious day, the honoring of St. Patrick, who, we were told, drove the snakes out of Ireland*. As the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, was born in Britain (ruled then by the Romans) in the 5th century. As a teenager, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland to be sold as a slave. Somehow he was able to escape and returned to his family, but through dreams he turned to religion and became a priest in Roman Catholicism. Years later he returned to Ireland and brought Christianity with him. St. Patrick is believed to have died on March 17th. Since the 9th or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing this day as the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick.
But when did the day of St. Patrick’s death become this huge world-wide celebration with parades, green beer and Leprechaun emojis?
After the potato famine decimated Ireland in 1845, more than one million poor Irish Catholics escaped to America to avoid starvation. America was, up until that time, primarily a Protestant middle-class society. When the Irish arrived, they were looked down upon because of their thick Irish brogues and for their radical religious beliefs. Work was not to be found. Signs “Irish Need Not Apply” were everywhere. Whether it was hatred or fear, the Irish were persecuted wherever they went. Being portrayed as drunks and violent abusers, the Irish had to fight racial prejudice and stereotypes. The road was difficult, but not impossible. Eventually most became laborers and then moved into the trades.
But they soon began to realize that their large numbers gave them a bit of political power. Settling in cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago, Irish immigrants started to organize and became politically connected, some eventually becoming politicians themselves. Known as “The Green Machine” these immigrants began to be an important swing vote for politicians. St. Patrick’s Day parades became organized by the Irish community in America as a show of strength, and became a “must attend” event for all political candidates (and still is).
As my grandfather would say “the Irish are natural-born politicians”. Perhaps this endearing “gift of gab” as he would call it was a result of kissing the Blarney Stone. As Irish politician, John O’Connor Power, defined it : “Blarney is something more than mere flattery. It is flattery sweetened by humour and flavoured by wit.” And who has those traits more than the Irish.
So now we have St. Patrick’s Day celebrations all across America and around the world. Yes, even in London, England!
♣ The oldest celebration is in Savannah, Georgia, which is believed to have begun in 1813. St. Patrick’s Day is the city’s biggest event, bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors over the three days. The Budweiser Clydesdales lead the parade and not only will Miss St. Patrick’s Day be crowned, Miss Teen St. Patrick’s Day will be crowned as well.
♣ In South America, Buenos Aires is actually home to the fifth-largest Irish community in the world. Dancing in the street with live music and dance performances featuring traditional Irish bans and Irish rock groups. No crowning of Miss Patrick’s Day here, they select the best “Leprechaun”.
♣ In Chicago, not only do they have a world-class parade and a crowning of the “Queen”, but they actually dye the Chicago River GREEN! This tradition has been going on since 1962 thanks to Mayor Daley’s friend and head of the Plumbers Union.
♣ In Toronto, they hope to have over one million people lining the parade route. The city has actually turned this event into a multi-cultural one, with over 32 countries represented.
♣ In Sydney, Australia, the Sydney Opera House as well as the rest of the city, turns green with special lighting effects. Spectacular!
♣ In Montserrat, British West Indies, St. Patrick’s Day is a public holiday. Celebrated over 10 days, this island has different
events scheduled for every day.
♣ Munich Germany, London England, New York City, and, of course, Boston, the celebrations for St. Patrick are worldwide!!
For all the Irish everywhere, and those becoming Irish even if just for the day, I say . . .
May the Irish hills caress you.
May her lakes and rivers bless you.
May the luck of the Irish enfold you.
May the blessings of Saint Patrick behold you.
P.S. * And just in case you were wondering, there are no snakes in Ireland. Just saying!