Green Grown the Rushes, Oh!
By Melissa Conroy
On March 17, the Chicago River will run green, copious amounts of corned beef will be eaten, and green beer will be happily consumed, all in celebration of Ireland’s patron St. Patrick. St. Patrick’s Day is Ireland’s national holiday, but the Irish are not the only ones who celebrate it: St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated by Roman Catholics, U.S. citizens, Australians and many more people in both English-speaking and non English-speaking countries. Huge St. Paddy Day parades occur all over the world.
The person for whom we celebrate this holiday was said to have been born with the name of Maewyn Succat. Luckily for modern tongues unable to wrap themselves around that particular arrangement of letters, Maewyn Succat eventually received the Romanized name of Patricius, which we now pronounce as Patrick. While his exact birth date is unknown, it appears that his life spanned from about 385 to 461 A.D. He apparently died on March 17, which is why St. Patrick’s Day falls on that date. Although many people assume that he was Irish-born, St. Patrick was actually born in Britain to a clergy family. When he was 16, St. Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and carried off into a life of slavery as a shepherd. During his years of captivity, St. Patrick turned to Christ for comfort and assurance. After six years had passed, St. Patrick received a vision from God that told him to leave Ireland. After traveling about 200 miles to the coast, St. Patrick was able to find passage to Britain, but he left the country with the intent to return as a missionary. After some time spent back at home training for ministry, Patrick returned to Ireland and devoted his life to converting the Irish people to Christianity.
Not surprisingly, the story of St. Patrick is often lavishly festooned with myths and tall tales, and many of the customs we practice during St. Patrick’s day are not historically accurate. Here is some factual information which corrects some false impressions people have about both St. Patrick and the holiday that we celebrate in his name.
• St. Patrick was not the first missionary to Ireland. Other missionaries had been sent before Patrick to spread Christianity.
• Although St. Patrick is said to have used the shamrock as an object lesson about the Trinity, none of his writings mention him doing so.
• Snakes are not native to Ireland, so there were none for St. Patrick to drive out. Some hypothesize that the story of St. Patrick driving all snakes out of Ireland is a symbol for him casting out pagan leaders from the land.
• Blue, not green, was the color originally associated with St. Patrick. In fact, Irish folklore states that the faeries like green so much that they are tempted to kidnap anyone (particularly children) wearing lots of that color.
• The idea of holding a St. Patrick’s Day parade originated in the U.S., not Ireland. In 1792, Irish soldiers serving in the U.S. military marched proudly through the streets of New York City, which sparked the idea of a annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.
• While we “traditionally” eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day, the dish was originally a luxury item that few in Ireland could afford. However, Irish people who immigrated to the U.S. found that beef was much cheaper in this new country, and corned beef eventually became a dish that all social groups could enjoy.
These misconceptions don’t seem to dampen holiday spirits at all, and millions of people around the world find St. Patrick’s Day a terrific excuse to affect a corny accent, drink copious amounts of Guinness and enjoy a day of merrymaking. Here are some random snippets of information about St. Patrick’s Day:
• Every year, the Chicago River is dyed green to celebrate the holiday. This tradition got started in 1962 and is upheld every year.
• Tokyo has held a massive St. Patrick’s Day parade every year since 1992.
• Sometimes St. Patrick’s Day falls during the Lenten season, presenting a dilemma to Catholics who would like to eat corned beef to celebrate the holidays. Therefore, some bishops grant Catholics a special dispensation which allows them to eat meat for this special holiday.
• Up until the 1970’s, St. Patrick’s Day was a religious holiday and all pubs in Ireland were closed. However, the Irish government, in efforts to popularize Irish culture and heritage, eventually lifted this ban.
• When Irish people began immigrating to the U.S., they were often viewed as poor, ignorant and rowdy. However, the yearly celebration of St. Patrick’s Day helped unite Irish Americans and strengthen their status in U.S. culture.
• There is nothing particularly distinctive about green beer other than its color: simply add several drops of green food coloring to your favorite brew, and you have green beer!
Although you have probably put your pub crawl days far behind you and the idea of carousing into the wee hours likely doesn’t appeal to you as much anymore, there is no reason why you can’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on your own terms. Bake a loaf of Irish soda bread, pinch anyone not wearing green, enjoy a genuine Guinness in one of the many registered Irish pubs in the U.S., and beat off any cold weather blues with a steaming plate of cabbage and corned beef. If you have any shoes in need of repair, leave them outside your door. If you’re lucky, a leprechaun just might mend them for you!