March 17th…St. Patrick’s Day…’tis the day to wear green, drink pints o’ beer and dance a jig or two. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland so ’tis the day to celebrate all-things Irish.
But this is the United States, so why are we commemorating a guy who died in the 5th century?
St. Patrick’s Day was originally a religious holiday observed by the Catholic Church…it was officially designated in the 17th century. It is even one of the dreaded Catholic “Holy Days of Obligation” in Ireland.
As the centuries have rolled along, the day has become more of a secular celebration of Irish culture rather than a religious one. In Ireland, it is a public holiday (as of 1903). In the United States, it bears the dubious distinction for being one of the heaviest days in the year for the consumption of alcohol.
Patrick was born in circa AD 387 in what was then Roman Britain. Long story short, he eventually became a priest and felt called to Ireland to attempt to convert the pagans into Christians. Legend has it that he used the shamrock, or 3-leaf clover, as a tool to teach people about the Blessed Trinity.
He died on 17 March 461 after 30 years of preaching and teaching. And that’s about all she wrote…not that much else is known about his life.
Irish-Catholic folks began immigrating to the United States as early as the 1600s. From 1820 to 1860, nearly 2,000,000 Irish arrived, 75% of them escaping the Great Irish Famine (An Gorta Mór) of 1845-1852. In the entire century after 1820, 5 million Irish immigrants came to the United States.
It wasn’t pretty at first. Most Irish immigrants were unskilled in any specific trade and lived in utter, humiliating poverty. Many of them settled in urban areas, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco, and the prejudice against them by so-called “nativists” was extreme. Some folks were even afraid that Irish Catholics would be loyal to the Pope in Rome rather than to the United States Constitution. (In fact, the extreme prejudice against Irish Catholics did not end until John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.)
Irish immigrants basically worked at any job they could get…as house servants, factory workers and laborers. They received very low wages. Their living conditions were abyssmal…families stuffed into one-room apartments, basements and other small spaces. They suffered from diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, typhus, tuberculosis and pneumonia. Alcoholism was a major problem also,.
But the Irish are strong-willed survivors and eventually they assimilated into American culture without giving up their religious and cultural traditions. As of 2008, there are 36,278,332 self-identified Irish-Americans in the United States. (11.9% of the population.)
Hence, St. Patrick’s Day is set aside each year as a day to celebrate Irish music, dance, poetry, song, shamrocks, proverbs, folk stories, leprechauns and yes…alcohol. (However, some of us like cookies and cake better….)
Some of my father’s ancestors immigrated to the United States from Adrigole, County Cork, Ireland in the mid-1800s. I worked on my genealogy a couple of years ago and have traced part of my heritage back to the Sullivan clan. John Sullivan came to the US and married an Irish girl in Massachusetts named Joanna and well…there you go. I am an Irish-American also…kind of…partly….
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh, y’all!