Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day
Have you ever wondered how many of our St. Patrick’s Day traditions are “really” Irish? The answer is probably not as many as you’d think!
In Ireland, prior to the Famine, St. Patrick’s day was a traditional Catholic feast day. Families celebrated with a meal and religious observances, and many businesses were closed for the day. In fact, until the 1970s, all pubs in Ireland were required by law to be closed on March 17th.
What we now think of as a celebratory day of parades, green rivers, and green beer is a relatively new occurrence that began in the mid-ninteenth century. As many Catholic families left Ireland for the United States, they were forced to define themselves and their culture within their new country. Many scholars argue that “the nearly 1.5 million Irish who fled famine conditions … identified themselves in terms of their families, villages, parishes, and perhaps counties. Forced into urban centers with Irish people from every town, parish, and county, however, the immigrants soon began to lose their old modes of identity. This process was accelerated as nativist hatred and common living conditions forced the immigrants to think of themselves as a single community.”
For immigrant groups like the Irish, as for any social group, it is communal rituals and commemorative ceremonies that help to define the group, reinforce those definitions of identity, and provide people with an organizing psychological and social structure around which to build and maintain a social and ethnic identity. “In the case of the Irish-Americans, one … [memory] site clearly outstrips all others in the power of its symbolic resonances: the St. Patrick’s Day celebration in America constitutes the “memory-site” par excellence because the majority of Irish-Americans, for whatever reason, came to believe that the ceremonies of the day could and should serve as reflections of Irish memory and identity, even—perhaps especially—when they disagreed over what form these ought to take. It was on St. Patrick’s day that Irish-Americans rhetorically and symbolically grounded their present in a remembered and constructed past: in sermons, speeches, and in the form of the festivities themselves, alternative conceptions of Irish-American identity were validated by linking them through commemoration with an “Irish past.””
Over the course of the late nineteenth century, St. Patrick’s Day in America came to be celebrated less as a religious feast day and more as a commemorative holiday celebrating Irishness, and more specifically, Irish nationalism. It was during this time that parades became a central feature of American St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. The parades “depicted the past in terms of a pantheon of Irish nationalist heroes.” Now, our parades are often about celebrating a more generic “Irishness.” But St. Patrick’s Day remains a central event for the Irish American community, and often a chance to celebrate one’s links to Mother Ireland, no matter how small!
St. Patrick’s Day has become such an event in the United States that it is shaping how the day is celebrated elsewhere. Even, ironically, in Ireland. Wanting to capitalize on American enthusiasm for the holiday, in 1995 the Irish Government started a St. Patrick’s Day Festival in Dublin.
Moss, Kenneth. 1995. “St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and the formation of Irish-American identity, 1845-1875.” Journal Of Social History 29, no. 1: 125. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 7, 2017).
· Why green? Originally, the color associated with St. Patrick is blue. Here we see the influence of immigration and ideas of Irishness circulating from mid-19th century forward: Green was the color of the Irish Land, Irish Nationalism, and the color of the shamrock, representing the trinity.
· As of 2014, 33.1 million Americans, or 10.4% of the population, claim at least some Irish Ancestry. This number is more than seven times the population of the Republic of Ireland itself.
· 21.5%: Percentage of MA residents claim Irish Ancestry. This is the highest percentage of any state, next highest being NH.
· 42.3% of Braintree reports having Irish ancestry
· NY is home to the world’s oldest and largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and the largest numerical Irish-American Population. Boston is actually not in the top three because it’s a smaller city. However, it has the highest number of Irish Americans as a percentage of the city’s total population (22.8%).
· Lincoln’s first inaugural luncheon on March 4, 1861, included corned beef, cabbage and potatoes.
· Is corned beef really a traditional Irish meal? Nope! “Corned beef and cabbage, as it would seem, is about as Irish as spaghetti and meatballs. Evolving from the Irish bacon and cabbage, it was Irish immigrants in America who quickly swapped in corned beef as a less-expensive substitute for pork.” In fact, they often got their corned beef from Jewish delis in New York City, because the two immigrant communities were nearby to one another. Want to read more about the history of corned beef? http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/is-corned-beef-really-irish-2839144/