Who was St Patrick?
St Patrick was born in Scotland at the end of the fourth century. When he was a boy, he was captured by a raiding party and taken as a slave to a godless, heathen place called Ireland where he stayed for six years until he escaped home. Actually it wasn’t called Ireland then, but Ériu or Hibernia (depending on whether you were a native or a Roman).
Later, young Patrick moved from the British Isles to France where he was ordained a priest and became a bishop: according to legend he awoke one morning from a dream in which he had heard the people of Ireland calling him to convert them to Christianity. Tales of how he accomplished this are legion, the most often repeated being the story of how he held up a shamrock to explain to the people the mystery of the Holy Trinity, thus creating the Irish national symbol. Those of us who grew up seeing pictures of Patrick in books triumphantly wielding a plant the size of a dinner plate remained confused for many years as to what relation that had with the miniature variety of clover that we saw actually growing in the ground.
How is his feast day celebrated?
It depends where you live. If you’re in Ireland, you’ll have the day off school or work and wear a sprig of shamrock on your lapel that you probably picked from the garden; if you’re devout you’ll go to Mass, if you’re more of a social animal you’ll attend one of the street parades that have started to be imported from America. If you’re in Britain you’ll wear the sprig of limp shamrock that your cousins sent you from the Old Country; if you’re a child you’ll have the day off from your Lenten fast, if an adult you’ll sink a couple of drinks and maybe break out your Frank Patterson CD in the evening. In America it gets taken to a whole other level. You probably won’t wear a real shamrock, but you almost certainly will wear something green, ranging from a tasteful tie or lapel brooch to an entire emerald ensemble up to and including a green tinsel wig, a hat shaped like a shamrock, and a sweatshirt reading ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish’. If you live in a city with a large Irish population, you’ll want to attend the parade; if the city has a river it might well be dyed green for the day; many pubs will serve green beer which you will consume with great enthusiasm; oh, and at some point you’ll be served the ‘Irish national dish’ of corned beef and cabbage. This is a dish unknown in Ireland itself, but which has been associated with the place in Americans’ eyes since the nineteenth century, when it was the cheapest food around and thus all that the immigrants could afford to eat.
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ST. PATRICK’S DAY
- The name shamrock is derived from the Irish word seamróg.
- St. Patrick’s parents were actually Romans, named Calpurnius and Conchessa.
- Of the many miracles attributed to St. Patrick the most famous was that he drove serpents out of Ireland. In fact post-glacial Ireland probably never had any snakes to begin with.
- The feast day was first celebrated in America in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1737. More than 34 million American citizens, out of a total of 311 million, claim Irish ancestry.
- Possibly the least-known location for a national holiday on St. Patrick’s Day is the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. It was founded by Irish refugees in the mid seventeenth century.
Why do the Americans go so over the top?
Because they’re Americans, remember? And there’s also a very justifiable sense of pride in any American with Irish roots. It most likely means their great-great grandparents were able to survive not only the Great Hunger of 1847 – double bluffing points if you know that this was not in fact, as sometimes described, a famine (there was plenty of food in the fertile fields and lush pastures of Ireland, but very little of it except potatoes was available to the natives, and when the potato crop failed the population was decimated) – but also the arduous and often fatal long voyage to America in one of the aptly named ‘coffin ships’. Some of the major eastern seaport cities, like Boston and Philadelphia, have public memorials to the Irish immigrants who landed there; New York has a particularly moving one at the end of Vesey Street in Battery Park. And if you’re in New York anyway, you might want to check out the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side where you can get a guided tour of the nineteenth century tenements and a sense of the lives lived there by immigrants of all nationalities.
Some famous Irish Americans
Writers, actors and politicians include Barack Obama, Frank McCourt, Tom Clancy, Michael Connelly, Pat Conroy, Cormac McCarthy, George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, John Travolta (mothers called, respectively, Donnelly and Burke), Tyrone Power, James Cagney, Maureen O’Hara, Spencer Tracy, Michael Moore, Bill Murray, Rosie O’Donnell, Joe Biden, Tip O’Neill and a family you might have heard of called the Kennedys. And that’s not even starting in on the musicians…
How do Irish Americans handle the stupid Irishman jokes?
They don’t – when those jokes are made in America they feature Poles, not Irish. And in Ireland itself, they target Kerrymen. The moral being, if you’re a Kerryman with a fragile personality and a notion to visit a big city, you should probably go West, not East.
Odd Man Out (1947), The Quiet Man (1952), The Dead (1987), My Left Foot (1989), The Field (1990), The Commitments (1991), Hear My Song (1991), Some Mother’s Son (1996), Michael Collins (1996), The Boxer (1997), Evelyn (2002), The Guard (2011).
Hmm, aren’t a striking number of these directed by Jim Sheridan?
What are some Irish films I can probably give a miss?
Anything involving a leprechaun.
Maximum Bluffing Value
The Irish for ‘Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you’ – literally translated, ‘the blessings of St. Patrick on you’ – is Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort (pronounced Bann-ach-tee na Fay-la Pwad-rig ort) if you are speaking to one person, Beannachtai na Feile Padrais oraibh (Bann-ach-tee na Fay-la Pwadrig or-iv) if to more than one. Bonus points for knowing that it’s only the Scots who refer to their native tongue as the Gaelic; in Ireland it’s called the Irish language. Unless you’re actually speaking the Irish language, in which case it’s called an Gaeilge. Confused? That may just be the point…
DON’T SAY ‘Shure and begorrah.’ No real Irish person has ever said this.
DO SAY More or less anything else, as long as it’s funny or interesting: one Irish cliché that is true is the national love affair with the art of conversation. Topics can be wide-ranging and need not shy from the controversial; kindness and respect are encouraged, as is the avoidance of racism, sexism, and any other undesirable-isms; however, if you’re torn between making a statement that is accurate and one that will be entertaining, you should with very few exceptions opt for the one with the entertainment value.