I was talking to a friend last night about the impending Irish celebrations around town and we got to talking (as I do about when I drink whiskey) about exploring the Irish American culture separately from Irish culture. They are, after all, two different groups. They share a history up to a point, but you got to stay and we had to leave. At that point, our cultures diverged.
It sometimes seems that the descendants of the first wave of Irish nationalists who were forced from Ireland before An Gorta Mór are particularly well indoctrinated as to their heritage. There are history books that cover the Irish American experience before 1845 that speak to this. I have ancestors from both eras and I tend to agree.
It only makes sense that those Irish who were forcibly removed from a land they held dear would fiercely and stubbornly cling to traditions that quite understandably seem to have waned in Ireland, as nationalism took an ugly turn in the form of car bombs and terrorism.
I think after discussing it with friends and reading a few good books on the subject I’ve decided that Irish Americans do tend towards being “more Irish than the Irish themselves” sometimes to the point of overkill.
Still, I believe the Irish American culture has the right to expression. We don’t have to do everything the way the Irish do, because we aren’t Irish.
Unfortunately, sometimes that is no more understood by an Irish born person than it is by the millions of nitwits that flock to the bars for green beer and Irish Car Bombs on St. Patrick’s Day. (May I digress for a moment to offer a sincere “to hell with you” to the person who named that drink.)
I think that the biggest mistake some people who write about these things make, is trying to link everything we do now with some practice from Ireland. As much as I love researching about folk healing and making traditional foods, some things are uniquely ours and that’s okay, too.
So with that in mind, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the Irish American traditions surrounding St. Patrick’s Day.
Wearing Green Clothing
Wearing green on March 17th, is an Irish American thing. Green is not the national color of Ireland, even today. It’s is a shade of blue (azure) that Douglas Hyde called “St. Patrick’s Blue” when they started using the presidential standard at the end of his presidency.
The Irish Volunteers took the shamrock as their emblem in 1777, and when the United Irishmen splintered off from that group they took the emblem and color, with them.
Wearing green or a shamrock in the “caubeen” (hat) was a symbol of supporting that group and considered a crime. Some young nationalists were hanged while others were exiled to penal colonies in America and Australia.
“The Wearing of the Green” is a song that dates to a time shortly after an uprising led by the United Irishmen in 1798, was stomped out. Like a lot of Irish songs that came with the emigrants, there are many versions but this version is distributed by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania as a resource for teachers. I would argue that this is an Irish American folk song as opposed to an Irish folk song.
“The Wearing of the Green”
Farewell! for I must leave thee, my own, my native shore,
And doomed in foreign lands to dwell, may never see thee more:
For laws, our tyrant laws, have said that seas must roll between
Old Erin and her faithful sons, that loved to wear the green.
Oh! we love to wear the green, Oh! how we love the green,
On native land we cannot stand for wearing of the green,
Yet wheresoe’er the exile lives, tho’ oceans roll between,
Thy faithful sons will fondly sing “The wearing of the green.”
My father loved his country, and sleeps within her breast,
While I that would have died for her, may never be so blest;
Those tears my mother shed for me, how bitter they’d have been
If I had proved a traitor to “The wearing of the green.”
There were some that wore the green, who did betray the green,
Our native land we cannot stand thro’ traitor to the green,
Yet whatsoe’er our fate may be, when oceans roll between,
Her faithful sons will ever sing “The wearing of the green.”
My own, my native Island, where’er I chance to roam,
Thy lonely hills shall ever be my own beloved home;
And brighter days shall surely come than those that we have seen,
When Erin’s sons may gladly sing, “The wearing of the green.”
For we love to wear the Green, O, how we love the Green!
Our native land we cannot stand for wearing of the Green!
But brighter days must surely come than those that we have seen,
When all her sons may proudly sing, “The wearing of the Green.”
It is songs like this that led to Irish Americans wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day here in the US. If you talk to an older native of Ireland chances are they have never seen it done, before recent years.
For Irish Americans, corned beef and cabbage is the traditional food of the day. Corned beef is not even just a little bit Irish. In Ireland, they use “rashers” or back bacon (it’s a type of bacon that’s even a little meatier than Canadian bacon) to make a boiled dinner. We can’t get back bacon here in the US and corned beef probably seemed as good a substitute as any.
There was a precedent of cooking meat in water for the feast, though. Some historians say that this custom started due to a legend about St. Patrick’s turning meat into fishes, by putting it in water. In the 12th century Bishop Jocelin wrote:
“Many of the Irish, wrongfully understanding this miracle, are wont, on Saint Patrick’s Day, which always falls in the time of Lent, to plunge flesh-meats into water, when plunged in to take out, when taken out to dress, when dressed to eat, and call them fishes of Saint Patrick. But hereby every religious man will learn to restrain his appetite, and not to eat meat at forbidden seasons, little regarding what ignorant and foolish men are wont to do.”
It doesn’t seem as though his advice was heeded as is evidenced by the continued preparation of boiled dinners or stews for the St. Patrick’s Day feast.
Interestingly enough there was just a report released by the Catholic News Service about some US dioceses handing out a St. Patrick’s Day dispensation for eating corned beef this year despite it falling on a Friday.
Obviously, given the date on some of these references, the practice of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is an ancient practice. But like many feast days in Ireland, the day started with mass, proceeded to dinner and probably ended up in a public house with chums.
It wasn’t the public outcry that we Americans seemed to need to make of it. We tend to do that, you know. Look at how we turned what was once social dancing into a competitive sport.
St. Patrick’s Day was popularized in the US as a national day of publicly and proudly celebrating your Irish heritage, despite the discrimination the Irish faced when they arrived in the US. That was probably due to the fact that they were able to — having escaped the tyranny of the English and come to the land of the free.
Parades are an extension of this “Kiss My Irish Ass” philosophy and definitely an Irish American invention. The first St Patrick’s Day parade was held by the Boston Charitable Irish Society, 1737.  The first parade on Irish soil happened in 1975, as their celebration of the day became more public in order to keep up with ours. It’s kind of cute that I found a few Irish blogs that claimed the parades as being the “one” Irish practice.
Why is drinking associated with St. Patrick’s Day?
I know the Irish would like to blame this on the Americans, but this is an Irish thing. They were being called out on it long before they came to America. While it certainly was not necessary to drink on St. Patrick’s Day, the Lenten prohibition against drinking was lifted for the day and drinking in honor of St. Patrick was allowed. Consequently, a lot of people lifted several pots to St. Patrick on the day. They even had a name for them “pota Pádraig.”
They loved their St. Patrick’s Day tradition so much that in 1727 the author of the first herbal published in Dublin wrote of white meadow clover:
“This Plant is worn by the People in their Hats upon the 17. Day of March yearly, (which is called St. Patrick’s Day.)…However that be, when they wet their Seamar-oge, they often commit Exceſs in Liquor, which is not a right keeping of a Day to the Lord; Error generally leading to Debauchery.”
The word “wet” is not a misprint here. It refers to a tradition called “wetting the shamrock.” At the end of your stay at the pub (often after far more than one whiskey) you drop your shamrock in your whiskey. You then raise the drink in a toast to the health of those gathered. After the toast, you take the shamrock out of the drink and toss it over your left shoulder. This is a tradition my people brought over with them.
From what I understand people in Ireland rarely do this any longer, or maybe it’s a regional thing? I remember the first time I spent St. Paddy’s Day with an Irish native many years ago, I excitedly did this thinking that he’d want to join in.
He looked at me like I was off my nut. That’s when I realized that no matter how Irish I think I am, I will always be Irish American.
That’s also when I began to relax accept the customs fondly because they are part of my family’s American experience and no less valid because they aren’t “authentic” Irish traditions.
Cronin, Mike, & Adair, Daryl. (2002). The wearing of the green: a history of St. Patrick’s day. London, UK: Routledge.
Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. (1979). The diary of Humphrey O’Sullivan, 1827-1837 a translation of Cín lae Amhlaoibh. (de Bhaldraithe, Tomás, Trans.). Dublin, Ireland: Mercier Press.
 Jocelin, Bishop. (1185). The Life and Acts of Saint Patrick, by Bishop Jocelin. Retrieved from http://catholicsaints.info/the-life-and-acts-of-saint-patrick-by-bishop-jocelin/  Crimmins, J. D. (1902). St. Patrick’s Day: Its Celebration in New York and Other American Places, 1737-1845 ; how the Anniversary was Observed by Representative Organizations, and the Toasts Proposed. New York, NY: J.D. Crimmens.  Threlkeld, C., & Molyneux, T. (1726). Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum … Dublin, Ireland: S. Powell. pp. TR.