St. Patrick's Day: Leprechauns, shamrocks, lore charm non-Irish
By Laura Szepesi
Published: Saturday, March 16, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
St. Patrick's Day originated in Ireland, but millions more of Americans celebrate the “Wearin' ‘o the Green” every March 17.
More than 35 million U.S. citizens — 12 percent of the total population — trace their roots to the Emerald Isle. Ireland's population numbered 6.3 million in 2012, including both the Republic of Ireland (“Catholic”) and the much smaller Northern Ireland (“Protestant”).
In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day has been celebrated as a religious holiday as far back as the 9th century, but it wasn't a national holiday there until 1903.
The holiday honors St. Patrick, who was born in the late-4th century in England — not Ireland.
He was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave when he was 16. Six years later, he escaped, traveled to Gaul (northern Europe), became a Roman Catholic priest and then decided to convert Ireland to Christianity. (At that time, the Irish were still pagans who worshiped many gods.)
Snakes a myth?
Within 200 years of St. Patrick's arrival, virtually all Irish citizens were Catholics. Irish folklore holds that St. Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland by waving a wooden staff. At the time, he was supposedly standing on a hilltop named Croagh Patrick. All sources agree that the Irish tale is fishy in nature, lending itself to oral embellishment over the generations.
Eventually, England invaded Ireland, and Catholicism was outlawed along with the Irish language and the island's music. During Queen Elizabeth I's reign (1533-1603), bagpipers who played Irish tunes were ordered hanged on the spot.
Today, the largest part of the island — the Republic of Ireland — is predominantly Roman Catholic, embracing the green on St. Patrick's Day. The Protestants in the North wouldn't be caught dead drinking green beer; no green shamrocks in their lapels, either.
Ireland's celebration remains tinged with the Catholic religion. In secular America, it's often said that “everyone” is Irish on St. Patrick's Day.
The first St. Patrick's Day parade was held in 1762, when America consisted 13 British colonies. Some Irish soldiers serving in the British Army marched in New York City. In the centuries since, New York's parade has swelled to 150,000 to 250,000 marchers on March 17. No floats or vehicles are permitted; the parade makes its way along Fifth Avenue from 44th to 66th Streets, to the cheers of millions.
Irish: No. 2 in U.S.
Perhaps America's enchantment with Ireland is partially because Irish immigrants outranked all others, except for Germans. The first wave of Irish came here in the late 1600s and settled in New England. Most were poor Catholics who came as indentured servants, and most converted to Protestantism to assimilate into Colonial American society.
The first significant wave of Irish came in the 1700s from Ulster (Northern Ireland). Known as “Scotch-Irish,” they were the descendants of English farmers who had been sent to Ireland by the British government to raise crops and livestock.
At least 250,000 Scotch-Irish, usually Presbyterians, settled in Colonial America, most of them in the frontier of the Appalachian Mountains. Many fought in the American Revolution. Some Scotch-Irish became wealthy; others gained political influence, including becoming U.S. President. The first was Andrew Jackson, who served from 1829 to 1837.
Scotch-Irish are nicknamed “Orange Irish.” The orange refers to their Protestant background and dates back to the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, in which Protestant English King William III defeated Catholic English King James IV; the two fought over who would rule England, Scotland and Ireland.
The largest wave of Irish immigrants came to America between 1820 and 1860 — 75 percent of whom were desperately fleeing the Great Irish Potato Famine (1847-1852), also known as the Great Hunger.
These Catholic Irish were impoverished and usually unskilled.
Women typically worked as maids for wealthier Americans. Men found the going even harder; they struggled to find jobs. American factories and businesses were often hostile toward the newcomers, who usually spoke Irish dialects instead of English. “No Irish Need Apply” signs suddenly appeared in the windows of employers.
As the Catholic Irish moved westward, they favored large cities — Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco. They found comfort because of the thriving Irish neighborhoods there.
The Irish Brigades
During the Civil War, thousands of Irishmen formed Irish Brigades, mostly fighting for the Union, although some did fight for the Confederacy.
After the war until around 1920, more Irish immigrated — this time for the same reasons that others came.
Italians, Russians, Scandinavians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles and others joined the Irish in seeking better working conditions or religious freedom — the same reasons that had lured the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock in 1620.
Just as America is a melting pot, so it is with St. Patrick's Day, when “everyone” is Irish and the common greeting is a heartfelt “Erin Go Bragh!” — “Ireland Forever!”
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Smithfield man shot after fleeing traffic stop
- UFO, Bigfoot encounters to be discussed at Connellsville library program
- Choral concerts planned in Dawson church
- Masontown girl pulls off heroic task at state farm show
- Connellsville community center enjoying rebirth
- Mt. Pleasant man charged in 2 Connellsville robberies
- Cause of Republic blaze under investigation
- Knife incident on bus gives Connellsville Area School District pause
- South Connellsville accepts police chief’s resignation
- Connellsville area benefits from tourism grant program
- Dawson mayor, CSX aim to repair railroad crossing at intersection