Everyone's Irish on St. Paddy's Day


Everyone’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day

By D.R. Bartlette


On March 17, millions of people throughout North America, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand will celebrate a day ostensibly in honor of St. Patrick with parades, green clothing and, of course, beer. Lots and lots of beer.

But who was St. Patrick, and why has his holiday become a sort of “Irish Pride” day?

St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, has been shrouded in over a millennium of mystery, exaggeration and myth. It’s no wonder; Irish has long been an oral culture, steeped in a rich tradition of music and storytelling, so it’s not surprising that the stories of St. Patrick would be greatly expanded over the centuries.

For starters, Patrick wasn’t even Irish. He was British. And “Patrick” wasn’t even his real name — it was Maewyn Succat (pronounced “mau-wen su-goot”). He took the Christian name Patrick when he entered the priesthood around 432 CE.

When Succat was 16, he was captured by Irish raiders and sold into slavery. After six years as a shepherd’s slave in Ireland, he had a vision directing him to escape. Then, after arriving back home to Britain, he had another vision telling him to return to Ireland and convert the Irish people to Christianity. Patrick took up the priesthood and traveled along the north and west coast of Ireland, building monasteries and schools. The date of St. Patrick’s Day — March 17 — is said to be the date of his death in 461 CE.

Most people know St. Patrick as “the man who drove the snakes from Ireland.” However, Ireland has never been home to snakes. The “snakes” he drove out were metaphors for the older Pagan Celtic beliefs. Modern Pagans refuse to observe a day that honors the elimination of the Old Religion; in protest, they wear snake images in honor of “All Snakes Day.”

But St. Patrick didn’t set out to eliminate the Old Ways entirely. Instead, he incorporated many of the symbols and customs of the pre-Christian Celts into his lessons about Christianity. For example, he used bonfires to celebrate Easter, which was familiar to the Pagan Celts, who often used bonfires to celebrate their holidays. He also combined a sun, a very powerful Irish symbol, with the Christian cross, creating what is now known as the Celtic cross. Unlike in many other lands, the conversion of Ireland to Christianity was largely peaceful and voluntary. 

The customary way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was for Irish Catholic families to close up shop and attend church for the feast of St. Patrick. Later, the Lenten prohibitions on “vice” (that is, anything fun) were suspended for a day, so there was drinking, dancing and feasting for one day in St. Patrick’s honor. 

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737 by the Charitable Irish Society. Regardless, until the mid-nineteenth century, Irish immigrants in America were despised and discriminated against. Newspaper cartoons portrayed them as drunken, violent monkeys. Many couldn’t even find menial labor and were forced to live in crowded, filthy tenements. 

When the Great Potato Famine hit in 1845, close to a million Irish fled starvation, seeking a better life in America. When these Irish immigrants took to the streets for St. Patrick’s Day, they soon began to realize their numbers gave them great political strength. When they started to organize, their voting block, called the “green machine,” became an important swing vote for aspiring politicians, and being Irish was no longer such a bad thing.

Irish pride grew, and today there are more than 100 St. Patrick’s Day parades around the country. The largest — and rowdiest — remains New York’s Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day parade, the oldest civilian parade in the U.S., with more than 150,000 participants.

Most of the other customs of St. Patrick’s Day are uniquely American, too. The traditional Irish meal consisted of boiled bacon and potatoes. Perhaps learning from their Jewish neighbors, the American Irish began eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. The wearing of the green is an American custom as well.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, today some 35 million to 37 million Americans claim Irish ancestry — nine times the population of Ireland itself! It’s the second most frequently reported ancestry in the U.S. behind German. While three states lead the nation in people with Irish ancestry — Delaware, Massachusetts and New Hampshire — the South is home to many of Irish decent as well.

“The biggest group of people (here in the Ozarks) are Scots-Irish,” says Enid Swartz, co-founder of the Eureka Springs Burns Night. Swartz explains there were originally seven Celtic nations, which included the Scots and the Irish, and they “found each other and banded together to fight the British.” 

The Scots-Irish, or Ulster-Irish, were the descendants of those Scots who moved first to Ireland, then to America.  

“The Scots-Irish settled Arkansas after they left from West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee,” Swartz explains. “Most of the people in (the Ozarks) came from that area. There was a big, big influx of Scots-Irish.”

In fact, two of the common names for Southerners come from the Scots-Irish: hillbilly and redneck. The Scots-Irish brought with them their music, which formed the basis for what is now known as bluegrass music. These Scots-Irish songs were often about William, Prince of Orange, who defeated the Catholic King James II. Supporters of William were called “Billy Boys,” and their American counterparts came to be called “hill-billies.”

“Redneck” refers to Presbyterians who fled Scotland for Northern Ireland to escape persecution from the British. They wore pieces of red cloth around their necks, and so were called “red necks.” Many of these Scots-Irish settled in the American South, and the term “redneck” was applied to them and their descendants.

So, hillbilly, down your pint (or four) of Guinness and chow down on your corned beef and cabbage, secure in the knowledge that you probably do have at least some Irish in you.

Categories: Features