Everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day, the saying goes. And the reality is that a lot of us are, at least a little. But the irony here is that large-scale St. Patrick's Day celebrations, as we know them, are pretty much an American phenomenon. These large celebrations were a way for Irish immigrants to maintain and celebrate their cultural identity in their new Protestant homeland. In fact, the very "first recorded St. Patrick's Day parade was held not in Ireland but in New York City in 1762, and with the dramatic increase of Irish immigrants to the United States in the mid-19th century, the March 17th celebration became widespread" (History).
let's take a look at some American St. Patrick's Day traditions as a
way to celebrate this thoroughly Irish holiday.
was St. Patrick?
seems fitting, then, that St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland,
wasn't even Irish at all. He was, rather, from Britain, born in the
late 4th century into a British Christian family of Roman
was captured by Irish raiders when he was 16 and was carried off to
Ireland where he was forced to tend flocks. His captivity lasted four
to six years until he finally escaped and returned to Britain. But he
couldn't stay away from Ireland.
felt called to return and try to Christianize the pagan (and fierce)
Irish. So he "studied for 15 years before being consecrated as
the Church's second missionary to Ireland. Patrick began his mission
in 432, and by his death in 461, the island was almost entirely
he didn't really drive out all the snakes – there never were any.
The island was too cold for snakes when it was still connected to the
main land mass, and when it broke away and became an island, no
snakes went with it.
introduced to Ireland, potatoes quickly became a staple food, cheap
and easy to grow. As all avid gardeners know, you should plant your
potatoes on or near St. Patrick's Day.
have an intriguing history in Ireland that goes back to the 1600s,
when Britain introduced the vegetable as an ideal food source for
their first colony's peasant population. By the 1840s, this
nutritious vegetable had helped to decrease infant mortality rates in
Ireland . . . Although the Great Potato Famine destroyed potato crops
across Ireland in the early to late 1840s, it spurred plant breeding
programs and the introduction of disease resistant potato varieties.
The famine is credited by some historians with stimulating modern
agricultural science" (Burpee).
the Irish have a long association with the potato. It's no wonder,
then, planting potatoes on St. Patrick's Day, which falls near the
first day of spring, is a tradition still observed by many gardeners.
There's nothing magical about planting on this day. It's just a fact
that in most areas planting potatoes in mid-March usually yields a
There's probably no other drink in the world as Irish as Guinness stout, and it's definitely the drink of choice on St. Patrick's Day.
Americans drink about 600,000 pints of Guinness per day. But that
amount swells to 3 million pints on St. Patrick's Day. And worldwide
consumption on this holiday is around 13 million pints of Guinness.
if you're going to celebrate with a glass of Guinness, you have to
know how to pour it properly. Begin by tilting your glass at about a
45-degree angle, and then pour slowly from the bottle into the glass.
When the glass is about three-quarters full, put it aside and let it
settle for a few minutes. Then after the head settles some, go ahead
and pour the rest in, filling the glass full.
Corned Beef and Cabbage
was a time not very long ago – before the current craze for smoking
and barbecuing – when brisket (which corned beef is made from) was
a very cheap cut of meat, often being ground up for hamburger. And
that's probably the main reason it is now connected with St.
Patrick's Day. As with other St. Patrick's Day traditions, corned
beef and cabbage is more American than Irish. It's just that most
Irish immigrants were poor, and corned beef brisket was more
affordable than other cuts.
Ireland produced large amounts of corned beef, it was nearly all for
trade. Corned beef was considered a luxury, and largely much too
expensive for the Irish to consume. Instead, they relied on dairy and
pork, and especially salt pork, a relative to bacon.
association of corned beef as traditional Irish fare can be traced
back to the 19th century and the Irish immigrants to the
US. While the newly immigrated Irish were used to eating salt pork
back at home, its nearest counterpart, bacon, was prohibitively
expensive in the US. Their best option for a lower-cost meat was, you
guessed it: corned beef.
was once a luxury item became a food that was now inexpensive and
readily available. So it was the Irish-American consumption of corned
beef that initiated its association with Ireland and the holiday of
St. Patrick's Day" (Kitchn).
for cabbage, it was and is an inexpensive vegetable, so it was paired
with corned beef. It became a food for the Irish immigrants, and it
stuck as a side dish.
is green, very green, much greener than most parts of the US. If
you'll recall, Sean and Allan O'Brien in Lonesome Dove (the
two befuddled and lost Irish immigrants the Hat Creek crew rescued in
Mexico) were utterly astounded by the fact that there was so little
grass in south Texas, that everything was brown and sere.
then there's the green shamrock, a three-leafed clover plant. Legend
has it that St. Patrick used the shamrock, with it's three leaves on
one plant, to help the pagan Irish understand the Christian doctrine
the Trinity. Whether that really happened or not, the shamrock is now
associated with all things Irish.
all that green associated with Ireland and Irish things, it was
inevitable that wearing green would become a St. Patrick's day
tradition. And if you don't wear green, you just might get pinched –
another entirely American St. Patrick's Day tradition. Wearing green
was said to make you invisible to leprechauns who would pinch you for
not wearing it. So, likely in the early 18th century,
people began pinching those who didn't wear green as a reminder of
what the leprechauns would do.