St. Patrick's Day: Leprechauns, shamrocks, lore charm non-Irish

| 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.

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