St Patrick’s Day is one of six holidays in Ireland which commemorate a person or event when banks, schools, stores and transportation are closed or reduced- Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th), Easter Monday, May Day (nearest Monday to May 1) and Halloween (the nearest Monday to October 31st. St Patrick’s Day, Christmas and St. Stephens are the only holidays which occur on the same date every year, regardless of the day of the week.
St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most celebrated holidays in Ireland, which I confirmed during my recent visit there last October. From a label from the National Museum of Ireland ‘ Then as now, St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th was one of the central events of the Irish year. The flag of Ireland was proudly carried by Irish people in parades across Ireland and North America in celebration of the country’s patron saint. The family enjoyed a meal and attended mass wearing the shamrock- often the men would then go to the pub to drink the saint’s health.’
It was tradition in Ireland to end St. Patrick’s Day with the ‘Drowning of the Shamrock’ by placing the shamrocks worn throughout the day in a glass of whiskey before drinking it. To gain better insights about the importance of St. Patrick to Ireland and the mythology around this I highly recommend reading ‘I am of Irelaunde- A Novel of Patrick and Osian’ by Julienne Osborne-McKnight
While here in America turning beer, pools and rivers green is going a bit overboard (as we tend to do), most of the traditions us more common folk practice on St. Patrick’s Day are traditional in Ireland too. So yes, ‘Wear the Green’ and a shamrock too (three leaf clovers are fine), and make that corned beef and cabbage without shame (see below). I replace potato with parsnip to be more historically accurate and make a delicious parsnip and kale colcannon which I delight in. And a Guinness is a great way to drink it all down, finished off with some Apple cake and drop of Irish whiskey. Yes.
From ‘Irelands Generous Nature’ an amazing ethnobotany of Ireland by Peter Wyse Jackson-‘The shamrock is worn widely in Ireland on St. Patrick’s day, 17 March. The leaf is said to symbolize a story told of St. Patrick’s use of the three-leaved shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost). [Though recent scholars question that St. Patrick’s really said this, it has been part of folklore in Ireland for many centuries]. Shamrocks were said to be lucky and so have been used as a badge for sports teams, state organizations and troops serving abroad from Ireland. The national airliner Aer Lingus, uses a shamrock as its logo. [O]ne can find Irish people who believe that shamrock will not grow in any country other than Ireland, and others cannot agree what plant species should be regarded as the one true shamrock. Today, Trifolium dubium is generally the species that is grown and worn on St. Patrick’s Day. This is the plant species put on display at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin each year, representing the ‘real’ shamrock.’ From ‘Irelands Generous Nature’– Jackson:
‘Green is the colour most often associated with Ireland. The green pigments found in most plants (chlorophyll) is predominant in the Irish landscape and allusions to it crop up in so many aspects of Irish culture and folklore. Traditional songs such as ‘The Forty Shades of Green’, ‘The Green Glens of Antrim’, “The Green Hills of Clare’, [etc] all refer to Ireland’s verdant green colour of fields, hedgerows, woods and mountainsides. There has also been a strong connection between the colour green and Irelands nationalist movements over the centuries. The tricolor flag of Ireland of green, white and orange was introduced by Thomas Francis Meagher in 1848. The colour green represents the Irish people, the orange the English supporters of King William of Orange, and the white, Peace.’
‘One of the best known songs referring to the symbolism of green is ‘The Wearing of the Green’ which refes back to the rebellion of 1798. One version of the lyrics:
O Paddy dear, and did ye hear the news that’s goin’ round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground!
No more Saint Patrick’s Day we’ll keep, his colour can’t be seen
For there’s a cruel law ag’in the Wearin’ o’ the Green.’
I met with Nappy Tandy, and he took me by the hand
And he said, ‘how’s poor old Ireland, and how does she stand?’
‘She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen
For they’re hanging men and women there for the Wearin’ o’ the Green.’
‘So if the colour we must wear be England’s cruel red
Let it remind us of the blood that Irishmen have shed
And pull the shamrock from your hat, and throw it on the sod
But never fear, ‘twill take root there, though underfoot ‘tis trod.
When laws can stop the blades of grass from growin’ as they grow
And when the leaves in summer-time their colour dare not show
Then I will change the colour too I wear in my caubeen
But till that day, please God, I’ll stick to the Wearin’ of’ the Green.’
From ‘Irelands Generous Nature’– Jackson
On Corned Beef and Cabbage
The Irish rarely ate their cattle in their early history, eating mostly grains until the introduction of the potato, along with pork and milk products. They held a reverence for the animals and wanted them for their milk rather than their meat. When the English outlawed the importation of live Irish cattle in 1667, traditional Irish corned beef became an important commodity. Corned beef is actually salted beef, a form of preservation. Spiced beef is a holiday food, taking corned beef and brining it with spices, taking the form of what we call ‘corned beef’ today.
From ‘Irish Traditional Cooking’ by Darina Allen- ‘Corned beef has a long history in the Irish diet. It is listed as a ‘delicious prodigious viand’ in the 11th century text Aisling Meic Con Glinne: ‘Many wonderful provisions, Pieces of every palatable food full without fault, perpetual joints of corned beef’. ‘Corned beef has been long associated with Cork City. Between the 1680’s and 1825 beef-corning was the city’s most important industry.’ On the Corned Beef & Cabbage recipe: ‘although this dish is eaten less frequently nowadays in Ireland…. Originally it was a traditional Easter Sunday dinner… after the long Lenten fast with fresh green cabbage and floury potatoes.’
Now it is a traditional food on St. Stephen’s day. In Ireland, corned beef was considered a luxury and it is because of this that it became popular to the Irish immigrants in America where it was no longer expensive with the abundance of beef in America and probably because it reminded them of home. As a feast food it is not a stretch to consider it a good choice for St. Patrick’s day meals.
In spite of the cynicism towards St. Patrick’s Day traditions in American, I say Go ahead!enjoy the traditions of St. Patrick’s Day as a way to honor the Irish in so many of us!