“Luck of the Irish” – St. Patrick’s Day


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Blog 11 – March 2021 M. Hines

In her January 1, 2021 article Kate Hickey writes, “In 1892 Annie Moore is the first immigrant through Ellis Island. This seventeen-year-old Irish girl was the first of over 12 million immigrants who sailed past the Statue of Liberty to arrive in New York City.” www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/annie-moore-first-immigrant-through-ellis-island#:~:text=The%20facility%20is%20an%20important,its%2062%20years%20in%20operation 

She was but one of many who came with only what could be carried. Some women sewed silver coins melted into spoons inside their garments to ensure the safe arrival of the only money they had.  Almost all immigrants were reviled for their different languages and appearance (fear exercising voice due to fast-changing demographics).   But in addition to diversity, migrants brought strength, courage, creativity, endurance, tenacity, and the dream of a better life.  They ‘chose’ to come here. “More than 3.5 million Irish Immigrants were processed at Ellis Island during its 62 years in operation [www.irishcentral.com]. Theirs and other immigrant’s vital contributions helped America become this strong country of over 328 million, and counting, today.

“The Luck of the Irish”, a well-known wish that many have heard, is a phrase with bitter-sweet connotations; encompassing a group of people known for surviving. Repeated invasions, horrific tragedies, famine, war, politics with intentions akin to genocide, and insurmountable odds resulted in several Diasporas. Despite this history, today the Irish people survived and today’s census show Irish-Americans number seven times the Irish population of Ireland”!  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/03/17/the-irish-american-population-is-seven-times-larger-than-ireland/.

It’s understandable then how an Irish-originating holiday would be so popular here in America, but did you know St. Patrick’s Day is “THE MOST GLOBAL  National Holiday?” https://time.com/3746018/st-patricks-day-global/.  With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, I went in search of more information to understand the origins of some common symbols, practices, and the person associated with this holiday.

Who Was St. Patrick?

Google (as only Google can) puts St. Patrick’s existence into a concise, compact, nutshell:  “St. Patrick lived during the fifth century, is the patron saint of Ireland, and its national apostle. [He was not Irish but] born into Roman Britain, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16. He later escaped, but returned to Ireland and was credited with bringing Christianity to its people.” [Google.com]

As with other historic figures, much legend has filled-in where historical fact has failed.  Some of the legends claim St. Patrick drove out the snakes from Ireland; used a shamrock to explain the Christian Trinity even dueled with Druids.    Lisa Bitel addresses these and other things in her article for The Conversation:

“Patrick was born around 450 A.D., just when Roman Troops withdrew from Britain. His father was a gentleman and a Christian deacon who owned a small estate in a place called Bannavem Taburniae  …as a historian of medieval Ireland, I can assure you that the real St. Patrick, who lived and worked in the fifth century, never saw a snake or wore a shamrock.” She adds: “As for the miraculous snake-charming attributed to Patrick, it could not have happened because there were no shakes in pre-modern Ireland. Reptiles never made it across the land bridge that prehistorically linked the island to the European continent.https://theconversation.com/10-things-to-know-about-the-real-st-patrick92253#: ~:text=Patrick% 20did% 20not%20drive%20the,island%20to%20the%20European% 20continent

Among  ten facts Lisa Bitel cites about St. Patrick [from his own writing] we learn that he: “…was not Irish …was captured in his teens and sold into slavery in Ireland …heard voices that helped him escape back to England… had visions that ultimately sent him back to Ireland”  and, “did something unmentionable.”  What he did was not clear, but Lisa explained, “Patrick retrospectively understood his zealous Irish mission to be penance for his youthful sins.“

And what does she say about the Druids?

Two centuries after his death, Irish believers wanted more exciting stories of Patrick’s life than the saint’s own account.  One legend (written 700A.D.) described Patrick’s contest with native religious leaders, the druids [who] insulted Patrick, tried to poison him and engaged him in magical duels – much like students of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts – in which they competed to manipulate the weather, destroy each other’s sacred books and survive raging fires. When one druid dared to blaspheme the Christian God, however, Patrick sent the druid flying into the air – the man dropped to the ground and broke his skull.”  https://theconversation.com/10-things-to-know-about-the-real-st-patrick92253#:~:text=Patrick%20did%20not%20drive%20the,island%20to%20the%20 European%20continent.”

Another article I found combined the druid and snake legend:    “Patrick’s efforts against the druids were eventually turned into an allegory in which he drove ‘snakes’ out of Ireland, despite the fact that snakes were not known to inhabit the region.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki /Saint_Patrick%27s_Day

“ March 17, 461 is believed to be when St. Patrick died.  The first St. Patrick’s day parade took place  [not in Ireland but]  in a Spanish colony, now St. Augustine, Florida,  on March 17,1601.” https://www.history.com/topics /st-patricks-day /history-of-st-patricks-day

Continuing this celebration well over 100 years later: “Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched in New York City on March 17, 1772 to honor  the Irish patron saint [the American Revolution came four years later]. Enthusiasm for the St. Patrick’s day parades in New York, Boston and other early American cities …grew from there.” https://www.history.com/topics /st-patricks-day /history-of-st-patricks-day

The 1848 discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada [Tahoe Call’s “neck of the woods”]  lured away more:” https://irishamericancivilwar.com/2014/07/15/the-yells-of-wild-beasts-and-shoshone-indians-an-irish-silver-miner-in-nevada-1864/ And as this Miner described in a letter to the New York Irish-American’s July 9, 1864 edition, the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were being introduced throughout the west:

            “You must not think that, although we are in this country, far from friends, we let [St. Patrick’s Day] pass unnoticed. No, sirs, we had a very pleasant celebration, for the first time in this part of the country. It’s too far gone to state all the proceedings, but I tell you that our firemen’s procession, headed by the Austin brass band, playing the old Irish airs, and our ball in the evening, made the hills around Austin ring…”

Shamrocks or Four-Leaf Clovers?

A Four Leaf Clover is not a Shamrock and Shamrocks are not Four Leaf Clovers but both are in the clover family. A shamrock is a clover that has 3 leaves.  If it has more, it is not called a shamrock. https://www.google.com/searchq=shamrocks&rlz=1C1CHBF_enUS816US816&oq=shamrocks&aqs=chrome..69i57j0i67j46i175i199j0.1911j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

According to Lisa Bitel’s article for theconversation.com,   St. Patrick never mentions shamrocks in any of his writings. https://theconversation.com/10-things-to-know-about-the-real-st-patrick92253#:~:text=Patrick%20did%20not %20 drive%20the,island%20to%20the%20European%20continent.   But, this lack of documentation hasn’t dissuaded their use by many denominations to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son & Holy Spirit).

Four-leaf clovers are a “rare genetic mutation” of clover, with an extra leaf -four instead of three. Folk tales state they will bring good luck if you find one. https://www.sporcle.com/blog/2019/02/what-is-the-difference-between-shamrocks-and-clovers/

Shamrocks are used to explain the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Christian denominations. Four Leaf clovers and their symbolism predate the three-leafed Shamrock.  “According to folklore passed down through the ages, ancient Druids believed each leaf on the four-leaf clover represented something different.  The first leaf is said to represent hope, the second represents faith, the third is love and the fourth is happiness.” https://www.sporcle.com/blog/2019/02/what-is-the-difference-between-shamrocks-and-clovers/

Author David Beaulieu states that four leaf clovers were considered by the Druids to be good luck charms to keep evil away:“For the most part, the four-leaf clover is not a separate species, just a freak of nature. That’s why people feel so lucky when they stumble across one.”  He then suggests: “If you want to ‘make your own luck’ [you should] “…buy an Oxalis deppei plant.  Oxalis deppei is widely sold as the ‘good-luck plant,’ because it bears a leaf that ALWAYS has four leaflets.”https://www.thespruce.com/irish-shamrocks-and-4-leaf-clovers-2130966

Leprechauns, Rainbows & Pots of Gold

“Lay your ear close to the hill

Do you not catch the tiny clamour,

Busy click of an elfin hammer…” (William Allingham) 

Leprechauns are associated with hoarding wealth, but stories claim they are actually “humble cobblers, or shoemakers”. Described as: “…wizened, bearded old men dressed in green (early versions were clad in red) and wearing buckled shoes, often with a leather apron. Sometimes they wear a pointed cap or hat and may be smoking a pipe.”  They are also claimed to be, “morality-tale figures whose fables warn against the folly of trying to get rich quick, take what’s not rightfully yours, or interfere with “The Good Folk” and other magical creatures.” https://www.livescience.com/37626-leprechauns.html

Mr. Radford’s March 9, 2017 article, ‘Leprechauns: Facts About the Irish Trickster Fairy,’  quotes The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures where authors John and Caitlin Matthews date Leprechauns back to water spirits.  “These sprites eventually merged with mischievous household fairies said to haunt cellars and drink heavily.” And he further explains:  “The fairies of Irish folklore were not cute Disneyfied pixies; they could be lustful, nasty, capricious creatures whose magic might delight you one day and kill you the next if you displeased them.” https://www.livescience.com/37626-leprechauns.html

Some Irish Legends claim if you can find and capture a leprechaun you may be granted three wishes. But warn Leprechauns are “roguish tricksters…can’t be trusted, and will deceive whenever possible.”  But if you insist on looking for them you must listen carefully around the hills for a faint, “tap-tap-tapping of his tiny cobbler hammer, driving nails into shoes, that announces they are near.” https://www.livescience.com/37626-leprechauns.html

Corned Beef & Cabbage

Shaylyn Esposito asks:

“Just as much as the Irish would not pollute their beer with green dye, they would not eat corned beef, especially on St. Patrick’s Day. So why around the world, especially in the US, is the corned beef and cabbage synonymous with St. Paddy’s Day?  The traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal eaten in Ireland is lamb or bacon…St. Patrick’s Day celebrations didn’t [begin]there until recently…parades and festivals began in the US…”Pubs were closed in Ireland on St. Patrick’s day until 1970…it was a day about religion and family…Today, thanks to Irish tourism and Guinness, you will find many of the Irish-American traditions.”  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/is-corned-beef-really-irish-2839144/

She continues to explain that beef wasn’t raised for consumption, but used for labor, milk and cheese.  Historically, pork was the main meat in Ireland. But having been a major part of England’s diet since the Romans, beef became a commodity after Britain’s invasion of Ireland, along with the newly introduced potato. Irish exports of beef to England numbered in the tens of thousands until the ‘Cattle Acts’ of 1663 & 1667 made it illegal to export ‘live’ cattle to England. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/is-corned-beef-really-irish-2839144/

These Cattle Acts flooded the market with beef, dropping the price dramatically.  ‘Salted Beef’ came into its prime.  The name, ‘Corned Beef’ came from the English because the size of the salt crystals used in this process resembled the size of corn kernels.   The Irish had a lower tax on their salt and cornered the market, setting the standard for the highest quality ‘salted beef’ exported to England, Europe, and North America.  But, unlike today’s ‘Corned Beef’, this meat was very salty.  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/is-corned-beef-really-irish-2839144/

Irish Immigrants settled among the many Jewish immigrant settlements in America; both having shared a common ground with similar reasons behind their diasporas.  American Irish immigrants transformed St. Patrick’s Day. It grew from an exclusively sacred holiday to incorporate secular celebrations of Irish heritage and homeland.  Such celebration required a special meal. Many immigrants purchased their local Jewish deli’s flavorful corned beef, adding potatoes and affordable cabbage. ‘Corned beef and Cabbage’ became the most common meal associated with St. Patrick’s Day.  Even President Lincoln chose this for his first inaugural lunch of March 4, 1861 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/is-corned-beef-really-irish-2839144/

“Wearin’ of the Green”

 “When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood,

  God bless’d the green island and saw it was good;

  The em’rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone,

  In the ring of the world the most precious stone…”

 – William Drennan

“Drennan was a doctor, poet and nationalist who objected to the poor conditions the Irish had to suffer while working for British landowners. He is thought to be the first person to refer to Ireland as ‘The Emerald Isle’ in his poem “When Erin first rose”. [https://ireland-calling.com/william-drennan-when-erin-first-rose/]

Then, there’s the mythical story of Goidel Glas who was bitten by a snake and saved from death by Moses placing his staff on the snakebite.  As a reminder of the incident, he would retain a green mark that would stay with him, and he would lead his people to a land that would be free of snakes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick%27s_Day

Here is a brief timeline for other contributors to “Green”

1640    – The green harp flag was used by the Irish Catholic Confederation. Later in history, John Connolly described this flag as representing, ‘the scared emblem of Ireland’s unconquered soul.

1680’s – Wearing Green Ribbons and Shamrocks on St. Patrick’s day can be dated back to at least the 1680’s.  

1700’s – The color green is associated with Irish Nationalism.

1922    – Ireland gains independence and all post boxes are painted green.

1924    – Irish Passports were issued in the color green and remained so until 1985 when European passports were burgundy.   [timeline from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick%27s_Day]

“When myth becomes reality, print the myth.”   – John Ford

Though the details of St. Patrick’s life are far from dull, we humans just love a well-embellished story. And, if that story or legend evolves into a holiday or celebration -even better! The mythology and folklore surrounding St. Patrick has surpassed historically documented fact; gilding the lily, and making him legendary. 

“Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick%27s_Day St. Patrick’s day celebrates much more than the veneer of Leprechauns, shamrocks, corned beef, and the color green. Each of those ornaments, like the Irish people, hold a much deeper significance and meaning.  They are symbols, practices, celebrations, and remembrances of a people’s turbulent history and lore; and of their survival despite tragic events. But instead of disappearing, they persevered.  Faith, Hope, Luck; those things that keep us moving forward when everything else tells us there’s no reason.  Through all, despite all, the Irish kept a sense of humor and lived to see a holiday named for their “Patron Saint” celebrated world-wide. They were not defeated by their history but survived and grew. More people now claim Irish descent that live outside Ireland, than within. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick%27s_Day

“May the road rise up to meet you,

May the wind be always at your back,

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

The rains fall soft upon your fields and

Until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

-Traditional Irish Blessing and ancient Celtic Prayer

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all!

Remember “VMS”: Vacinate, Masks and Social Distancing (just a little bit longer- we’re almost there!) As each does their part to help protect family and neighbors, and hasten ‘turning the corner’ to bring us through this Covid period, we could all use a “Wee Bit of Irish Luck” to help us reach those better days ahead!