Married to an Irishman you might imagine that this would be a big day at our house complete with corned beef and cabbage, soda bread and two kinds of potatoes washed down with green beer. Not so. Although public celebrations in Ireland are beginning to look a bit more like they do in America because of the large numbers of tourist who expect it, this isn’t the way the day was typically observed.
St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is a little like a combination of Thanksgiving and July 4th in the United States. First and foremost, it is a Holy Day of obligation for Catholics so they go to Mass. Generally they would also have a nice family dinner, similar to Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter, featuring ham, turkey, lamb or something similar. In addition to the Christian aspects, of course St. Patrick’s day is a celebration of national pride, not unlike July 4th. There are parades during the day and sometimes fireworks at night.
So why corned beef? The bulk of Irish immigration to the US came at the time of the potato famine. When meat was available to the poor in Ireland it was nearly always inferior cuts of pork. Generally they boiled it to make it tender enough to eat. In the US cheap cuts of beef, like brisket or its pickled form corned beef were more widely available. I suspect that on a holiday where it was traditional to serve a nice meal, a brisket or corned beef was a special, festive meal. Over the years this became seen as the way to celebrate the day. While in the US this became carved into tradition, in Ireland people kept celebrating the feast day with the nicest food available to them at the time and this changed over the years.
The widespread display of the color green and other symbols of Ireland also has its roots in those first immigrants. While you will certainly see symbols of Irish pride everywhere in Ireland too, it has achieved epic proportions over the years in the US. During those early waves of immigration, the Irish, who were almost exclusively Catholic, were fleeing English oppression. There exists no such person as an Irish Catholic, was a statute. In their attempt to bring the Irish to heel, there were laws that prohibited any show of Irish nationalism in Ireland and came with harsh punishments. Incidentally, this was also true during the Highland clearances in Scotland. Once free of this oppression, the Irish immigrants could openly celebrate a Catholic holy day by displaying symbols of Irish pride in every way possible. Eventually this became a tradition resulting in the holiday being more closely linked to Irish nationalism in general that its Catholic origins.
Curious about anything Irish? Feel free to ask, I will share what I have learned after nearly 23 years of marriage to an Irishman. 😉
We have corned beef and cabbage in my house every year on Saint Patrick’s Day! Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Sláinte!
Beautiful and wonderfully insightful post, Ceci! I love getting a glimpse at a true and authentic St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Ireland. It reminds me of my Highland friends when they see all the tartan hype in NYC on “Tartan Day” every year. They chuckle, roll their eyes, and shrug, chalking it all up to ‘kilt-crazy Americans.’ ((:O
Thanks Sue-Ellen. I think sometimes those of us who are very much a part of the melting pot, want to claim an ethnic identity. Still, I think it is nice to understand the origin of traditions.
We had the corned beef and cabbage and fried potatoes. Sean makes it every year. We always have pork and sauerkraut on New Years and the norm on Thanksgiving, and Easter. Sean laughs at my family because it’s become a habit of having pizza on Christmas. No cooking and cleaning for anyone that day. 🙂
I agree with Sue-Ellen. Speaking for myself, I think knowing where my direct descendants came from gives me the feeling of belonging and I’m proud of those roots. I’ve never felt that I “belonged” here. I think it’s because of the ache my soul feels. 🙂