I was talking to a friend last night about the impending “Irish” celebrations around town and we got to talking (as I do when I drink whiskey) about exploring the Irish American culture separately from Irish culture.
They are, after all, two different groups. The Irish and their diaspora share a history up to a point, but some people got to stay, and some had to leave. At that point, our cultures diverged.
The Irish American diaspora didn’t come all at once or for the same reasons. Some were exiled from the country by the English colonizers in the mid-late 1700’s while others were fleeing starvation and poverty during An Gorta Mór. To me it seems the descendants of the first wave of Irish nationalists who were forced from Ireland before An Gorta Mór are particularly well indoctrinated as to their heritage.
There are history books that cover the Irish American experience before 1845 that speak to this. I have ancestors who emigrated during both eras, and I tend to agree. It only makes sense that those Irish who were forcibly removed from a land they held dear would fiercely and stubbornly cling to traditions that quite understandably seem to have waned in Ireland, as nationalism took an ugly turn in the form of car bombs and terrorism.
After discussing it with Irish friends, Irish American family members, and reading a few good books on the subject, I’ve decided that Americans of the Irish diaspora join their Anglo-Norman ancestors in being “more Irish than the Irish themselves” sometimes to the point of being a bit obnoxious.
Still, the Irish American culture has the right to expression. We don’t have to do everything the way the Irish do because we aren’t Irish. Unfortunately, sometimes that is no more understood by an Irish-born person than it is by the millions of nitwits that flock to the bars for green beer and Irish Car Bombs on St. Patrick’s Day. (May I digress for a moment to offer a sincere “to hell with you” to the person who named that drink.)
I think that the biggest mistake that members of the diaspora who write about these things make, is trying to link everything we do now with some practice from Ireland. As much as I love researching about folk healing and making traditional foods, some things are uniquely ours and that’s okay, too. With that in mind, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the Irish American traditions surrounding St. Patrick’s Day.
Wearing Green Clothing
Wearing green on March 17th, is an Irish American thing. Green is not the national color of Ireland, even today. It’s a shade of blue (azure) that Douglas Hyde called “St. Patrick’s Blue” when they started using the presidential standard at the end of his presidency.
The Irish volunteer militia during the late 1700s took the shamrock as their emblem when the United Irishmen splintered off from that group, they took the emblem and color, with them. Wearing green or a shamrock in the “caubeen” (hat) was a symbol of supporting that group and was considered a crime.
“The Wearing of the Green” is a song that dates to a time shortly after an uprising against English colonizers led by the United Irishmen in 1798, was stomped out. Some young nationalists were hanged while others were exiled to penal colonies in America and Australia.
Like a lot of Irish songs that came with the emigrants, there are many versions, but this version is distributed by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania as a resource for teachers. I would argue that this version is an Irish American folk song as opposed to an Irish folk song.
“The Wearing of the Green”
Farewell! for I must leave thee, my own, my native shore,
And doomed in foreign lands to dwell, may never see thee more:
For laws, our tyrant laws, have said that seas must roll between
Old Erin and her faithful sons, that loved to wear the green.
Oh! we love to wear the green, Oh! how we love the green,
On native land we cannot stand for wearing of the green,
Yet wheresoe’er the exile lives, tho’ oceans roll between,
Thy faithful sons will fondly sing “The wearing of the green.”
My father loved his country, and sleeps within her breast,
While I that would have died for her, may never be so blest;
Those tears my mother shed for me, how bitter they’d have been
If I had proved a traitor to “The wearing of the green.”
There were some that wore the green, who did betray the green,
Our native land we cannot stand thro’ traitor to the green,
Yet whatsoe’er our fate may be, when oceans roll between,
Her faithful sons will ever sing “The wearing of the green.”
My own, my native Island, where’er I chance to roam,
Thy lonely hills shall ever be my own beloved home;
And brighter days shall surely come than those that we have seen,
When Erin’s sons may gladly sing, “The wearing of the green.”
For we love to wear the Green, O, how we love the Green!
Our native land we cannot stand for wearing of the Green!
But brighter days must surely come than those that we have seen,
When all her sons may proudly sing, “The wearing of the Green.”
It is songs like this that led to Irish Americans wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day here in the US. If you talk to an older native of Ireland chances, are they are more familiar with wearing a sprig of seamrog or perhaps a cross with a bit of green ribbon.
For Irish Americans, corned beef and cabbage is the traditional food of the day. Corned beef is not even just a little bit Irish. In Ireland, they use “rashers” or back bacon (it’s a type of bacon that’s even a little meatier than Canadian bacon) to make a boiled dinner. We can’t get decent back bacon here in the US and corned beef probably seemed as good a substitute as any.
There was a precedent of cooking meat in water for the feast, though. Some historians say that this custom started due to a legend about St. Patrick’s turning meat into fishes, by putting it in water. In the 12th century Bishop Jocelin wrote:
“Many of the Irish, wrongfully understanding this miracle, are wont, on Saint Patrick’s Day, which always falls in the time of Lent, to plunge flesh-meats into water, when plunged in to take out, when taken out to dress, when dressed to eat, and call them fishes of Saint Patrick. But hereby every religious man will learn to restrain his appetite, and not to eat meat at forbidden seasons, little regarding what ignorant and foolish men are wont to do.”
It doesn’t seem as though his advice was heeded as is evidenced by the continued preparation of boiled dinners or stews for the St. Patrick’s Day feast. There was just a report released by the Catholic News Service about some US dioceses handing out a St. Patrick’s Day dispensation for eating corned beef this year despite it falling on a Friday.
Obviously, given the date on some of these references, the practice of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is an old one. But like many feast days in Ireland, the day started with mass, proceeded to dinner, and then men probably ended up in a public house with chums.
It wasn’t the public outcry that we Americans seemed to need to make of it. We tend to do that, you know. Look at how we turned what was once social dancing into a competitive sport. (Says the Irish dance, mom.)
St. Patrick’s Day was popularized in the US as a national day of publicly and proudly celebrating your Irish heritage, despite the discrimination the Irish faced when they arrived in the US.
Parades are an extension of this “Kiss My Irish Ass” philosophy and definitely an Irish American invention. The first St Patrick’s Day parade was held by the Boston Charitable Irish Society, 1737.  The first parade on Irish soil happened in 1975, as their celebration of the day became more public in order to keep up with ours.
Why is drinking associated with St. Patrick’s Day?
I would imagine the Irish would like to blame this on the Americans, but this is an Irish thing. They were being called out on it long before they came to America. While it certainly was not necessary to drink on St. Patrick’s Day, the Lenten prohibition against drinking was lifted for the day and drinking in honor of St. Patrick was allowed. Consequently, a lot of people lifted several pots to St. Patrick on the day. They even had a name for them “pota Pádraig.” They loved their St. Patrick’s Day tradition so much that in 1727 herbal published in Dublin wrote of white meadow clover:
“This Plant is worn by the People in their Hats upon the 17. Day of March yearly, (which is called St. Patrick’s Day.)…However that be, when they wet their Seamar-oge, they often commit Exceſs in Liquor, which is not a right keeping of a Day to the Lord; Error generally leading to Debauchery.”
The word “wet” is not a misprint here. It refers to a tradition called “wetting the shamrock.” At the end of your stay at the pub (often after far more than one whiskey) you drop your shamrock in your whiskey. You then raise the drink in a toast to the health of those gathered. After the toast, you take the shamrock out of the drink and toss it over your left shoulder. At least this is the version of the tradition my people brought over with them.
I remember the first time I spent St. Paddy’s Day with an Irish native decades ago, I excitedly did this thinking that he’d want to join in. He looked at me like I was off my nut.
From what I understand people in Ireland rarely do this any longer, or perhaps it is a regional thing? (Edit: I learned from the folklore commission collection that there were licensing laws that closed public houses on this day and the practice had mostly died out in Ireland by the early 1930’s. It makes sense the folk in my family still did it because they never let pesky things like legalities come between them and their booze.)
I think that’s when I began to accept the customs fondly because they are part of my family’s American experience and stop seeing them as less valid because they aren’t “authentic” Irish traditions.
Not even Irish people have a good handle on this, these days. Take this example:
It’s a been branded as an old Gaelic blessing when really it was written by an American minister was not Irish who acknowledges that he just threw together a bunch of Irish blessings he had heard before. He apparently didn’t know that Go n-éirí an bóthar leat,” means something along the lines of wishing someone a good journey or success, but translates literally into “may the road rise with you.”
It’s a pretty thing though, isn’t it? Whenever I hear it, it relaxes that knot between my shoulders. I think it’s okay for a living culture to evolve and adopt new sayings and adages. We just want to be careful that we don’t falsely represent them as being historical.
Cronin, Mike, & Adair, Daryl. (2002). The wearing of the green: a history of St. Patrick’s day. London, UK: Routledge.
Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. (1979). The diary of Humphrey O’Sullivan, 1827-1837 a translation of Cín lae Amhlaoibh. (de Bhaldraithe, Tomás, Trans.). Dublin, Ireland: Mercier Press.
 Jocelin, Bishop. (1185). The Life and Acts of Saint Patrick, by Bishop Jocelin. Retrieved from http://catholicsaints.info/the-life-and-acts-of-saint-patrick-by-bishop-jocelin/
 Crimmins, J. D. (1902). St. Patrick’s Day: Its Celebration in New York and Other American Places, 1737-1845 ; how the Anniversary was Observed by Representative Organizations, and the Toasts Proposed. New York, NY: J.D. Crimmens.
 Threlkeld, C., & Molyneux, T. (1726). Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum … Dublin, Ireland: S. Powell. pp. TR.