By Andrea Culletto —
St. Patrick’s Day has long been one of my favorite holidays. It involves no complicated gift giving. It requires no expensive fireworks. There aren’t elaborate meals that necessitate a day (or more) spent locked in the kitchen. To the contrary, St. Patrick’s Day is just pure, unadulterated fun. It’s about joining together with family, friends and community to celebrate something great. Plus, who doesn’t look good in green?
Oddly enough, shortly after I began researching St. Patrick’s Day for this article, I took an Ancestry DNA test and discovered that I’m Irish—a whole 29 percent. Considering the mishmash of my ancestry, that’s a pretty big chunk. Clearly, it was time for me to embrace my Irish side.
With added gusto, I dove into Irish culture in search of the story behind St. Patrick’s Day, how to best celebrate and what it really means to be Irish.
The History of St. Patrick’s Day
St. Patrick’s Day isn’t new. In fact, it has been celebrated by the Irish for over 1,000 years. Formally known as the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick, the holiday is designed to celebrate Ireland’s patron saint and, by extension, all of Irish culture. While many believe the March 17 holiday to be a commemoration of St. Patrick’s birth, it actually marks the believed date of his death.
Historically, Irish families would observe this holiday by attending church in the morning and celebrating afterward with dancing, drinking and feasting on traditional Irish foods, like Irish bacon and cabbage. Religious prohibitions associated with the springtime season of Lent were often waived so revelers could enjoy their festivities to the fullest.
Early St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were relatively mellow in comparison. It wasn’t until large groups of Irish immigrants settled in America that things really got exciting, but more on that later.
The Man Behind It All
Let’s start with a bombshell: St. Patrick wasn’t actually Irish. It’s crazy, but true. The man behind the holiday was born in Roman Britain. Also, his name wasn’t Patrick. It was Maewyn. As a youth he was captured and sold into slavery, winding up in Ireland. After a time, he escaped and found refuge in a monastery in Gaul, France.
Here Maewyn converted to the Christian faith, became a priest and changed his name to Patrick. Legend has it that an inspired dream called him back to Ireland to spread his newfound faith. Whatever his motivation, Patrick did return to Ireland and began to preach. Here he is said to have confronted the Druids and played a strong role in the cessation of paganism on the island.
As a bishop, Patrick is famously known to have driven all the snakes out of Ireland—an impressive claim that, unfortunately, seems to be fictitious. In fact, there is no evidence of snakes having ever existed in Ireland, and the waters surrounding the island are too cold for migration. Still, some speculate that this myth was actually a metaphor, with snakes meant to symbolize pagan religious practice. Whatever its source, the story of one man driving every serpent into the sea is a powerful tale that has endured and entertained listeners for centuries.
While much mystery still enshrouds the life of St. Patrick, what is certain is that he left his mark on the land he made his home. After his death, he was named Ireland’s patron saint. His countrymen are still celebrating, now joined by millions of others around the world.
Celebrating All Things Irish
While St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated long before it reached American soil, it didn’t become extravagant until it arrived here. Whether it was the aggrandizing influence of the good old U.S.A. or a deeper need to reconnect with country and kin, things really took off in America, starting with a parade.
The tradition of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a parade started in New York City in 1762. A group of Irish soldiers serving in the English army marched together to celebrate. This simple action set in motion a tradition that is now repeated annually across the country and around the world.
Fittingly, the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade is currently held in New York City. This parade brings together over 2 million people, lasts approximately six hours and features between 150,000 to 250,000 participants (no floats or cars allowed).
Unsurprisingly, Dublin also hosts one of the world’s largest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. This multiple-day event attracts approximately half a million attendees. Major landmarks like St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Natural History Museum turn green for the occasion.
Dublin isn’t the only thing turning green, however. The Sydney Opera House in Australia turns green for St. Patrick’s Day, along with many other major landmarks around the world. In Chicago, they are so in love with the Irish, they dye the Chicago River green. This annual tradition has been going on since 1961, when it sprang from somewhat unsavory roots.
In those days, the green dye was used to identify a sewage problem in the river. The chairman of the parade saw this and decided it could be repurposed in a more festive manner. That first year they poured 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into the water, causing the river to remain green for a whole week. Today over 400,000 people watch as approximately 40 pounds of environmentally safe vegetable dye turn the greyish waters a brilliant shade of emerald green. It only lasts for a few hours, but it’s a great way to start a day of Irish festivities.
If you’re looking for a great hometown St. Patrick’s Day celebration, La Crosse is the place. Its St. Patrick’s Day parade is a festive event full of bands, floats and proud Irish clans. Locals gather beforehand for breakfast and beverage specials at Dublin Square and then reunite afterward for live music, Irish dancers, good food, drinks and lots of Irish fun!
Be sure to enjoy a meal of corned beef and cabbage, and don’t forget to “drown the shamrock.” In this tradition, you wear a fresh shamrock on your coat throughout the day, then dunk it in the last glass of Irish whiskey or beer before gulping it down as a toast to St. Patrick himself. When you’re finished, throw the shamrock over your left shoulder and good luck is said to follow.
For our local Irish men and women, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day goes beyond the usual festivities. “Since our family has joined La Crosse Bantry Friendship Association and La Crosse Shamrock Club, my St. Patrick’s Day starts with a trip on the ‘Shamrock Bus,’” says Lynn Marie West, vice president of the La Crosse Bantry Friendship Association. “Members of both clubs embark on a day’s journey of celebrating all things Irish with music and dance, and spreading general Irish good cheer. In the morning we visit grade schools in La Crosse and Onalaska. Our afternoon consists of multiple stops at area nursing homes. It is a fun day and the response we get is very rewarding. Children and seniors alike delight to the music, dance and shenanigans of local leprechauns. Even St. Patrick himself makes an appearance.”
Patrick Stephens of the Greater La Crosse Area Shamrock Club loves dressing up in his full St. Patrick regalia for the event. In fact, he and his family started this tradition many years ago when his children were still small. “I would always dress as a leprechaun,” he recalls. “When they were older, my two sons would join me and we would go around spreading cheer, giving out shamrock treats and singing songs. We had a good time doing it too.”
The fun doesn’t end there. Every year Stephens invites his friends and family over to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at his personal, in-home Irish pub. “We call it Pat’s Pub,” he laughs. “We have all the Irish whiskeys and all the Irish beers.” The Stephens family brings in Irish entertainment for the enjoyment of their guests, who relish the hospitality. “The Irish have a reputation for great senses of humor, hospitality and big hearts,” Stephens explains.
West and her family spend the latter portion of their St. Patrick’s Days gathering with friends and family over a traditional Irish meal followed by dessert and coffee with Baileys.
In La Crosse’s sister city of Bantry, Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with an annual parade, Irish music and lots of traditional Irish food served in the town’s many restaurants and bars. “The Irish language is also celebrated, as well as welcoming visitors with Irish heritage from all over the world,” explains Eileen O’Shea, chairman of Bantry Development and Tourism. “St. Patrick’s Day gives us the opportunity to showcase Ireland for its people, place and the welcome is always extended to our visitors. We are delighted to have twinned with La Crosse and have welcomed them several times to Bantry. All over Ireland small communities have twinned and this helps maintain our strong cultural links with America.”
Here in La Crosse, Irish revelry needn’t be relegated to one day of the year. Held every August at the Southside Fest Grounds, Irishfest offers traditional Irish music along with contemporary tunes, Irish language lessons, storytellers and genealogy, not to mention the exciting highland games and sheepherding demonstrations. Those dogs can do more than many people. It’s a must see!
St. Patrick’s Day is marked with green everything, from green rivers to green milkshakes and green beer. And everyone knows the old tradition—if you’re caught without any green on St. Patrick’s Day, prepare to get pinched! But why is that? Where did this affinity for the color green come from?
Some see a connection between green and the Irish shamrock. However, the roots of the Irish-green connection extend back to more political origins. During the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641, military commander Owen Roe O’Neill flew a green flag with a harp symbol on it in representation of the Confederation of Kilkenny.
The color was revived again in the 1790s when the Society of United Irishmen, a group who promoted nonsectarian republican ideas inspired by the French and American revolutions, began wearing green. Their uniform was described as a dark green shirt with green and white striped trousers, felt hat and green emblematic cockade. This uniform was commemorated in songs and ballads. Due largely to this artistic representation, the significance of the color intensified. When Irish immigrants later longed for home, wearing green was a way to reconnect.
Lucky Leprechauns and Green Shamrocks
Clancy O’Coulee, the Irishfest mascot, is La Crosse’s resident leprechaun. His kind weren’t always so friendly, however. Early leprechaun stories describe them as crotchety, mischievous shoemakers who hoard their gold at the ends of the rainbow. They are often depicted as small, bearded men and were originally thought to wear red, although that changed to green in the 20th century. (Even leprechauns like to keep up with the trends.)
Catching a leprechaun will award you three wishes in exchange for his freedom. But what seems fortuitous may turn out to be more complex, due to leprechauns’ untrustworthy nature. Carol Rose’s book “Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns and Goblins,” shares a typical cautionary tale about a man who manages to capture a leprechaun. The man gets the leprechaun to reveal where his treasure is buried in exchange for his release. The leprechaun shows the man the bush that conceals his treasure. The man marks it with a red garter and, after releasing the leprechaun for upholding his end of the deal, goes to fetch a shovel. When he returns, he finds every bush in the field marked with a red garter. So, if you do manage to capture a leprechaun, be wary.
When asked if he believes in leprechauns, Stephens laughs, “Of course! I believe in Santa Claus too. You’ve got to believe in leprechauns.” These strange creatures sprang out of collective consciousness much like Norwegian trolls or European fairies. “You can imagine hundreds of years ago, sitting around a peat fire and just letting the stories go,” he says. “Storytelling was one of their main sources of entertainment at the time.”
Much like the leprechaun, the shamrock is also a well-known Irish emblem. While no one is quite sure if the shamrock is meant to represent Ireland’s white clover, wood sorrel or another plant entirely, it is now firmly entrenched in Irish culture. Though there seems to be no direct evidence of this, St. Patrick himself is said to have used the shamrock as a visual aid in explaining Christianity’s concept of the interrelated nature of the trinity (God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit). Somewhere along the way, the shamrock was incorporated into everything from St. Patrick’s Day attire to political flags, and now shows up on almost everything even remotely Irish, including Lucky Charms cereal.
According to Stephens, however, shamrocks with four leaves are actually a misrepresentation. “The Irish symbol of the shamrock has three leaves, not four,” he explains. “When I see a four-leafed shamrock in a pub or on a box of Lucky Charms, it drives me crazy.”
What Does It Mean to Be Irish?
Being Irish means many things to many people. For Stephens, his Irish identity is strongly connected to community. His parents, both 100 percent Irish, were responsible for establishing the Shamrock Club in La Crosse, based on the Milwaukee club’s model. His family has been deeply involved ever since.
“I’m very proud of [being Irish],” Stephens relates. “When you look at all the things the Irish have contributed, there is lots to be proud of. Authors, researchers, music—you name it, the Irish have been a part of it. Yeats is one of my favorite authors. We celebrate all of this at Irishfest. It helps get rid of the rumor that the Irish are just a bunch of drinkers.” He’s also proud of the Irish history in the La Crosse area, where immigrants helped establish the city and construct the railroad system.
While many Americans are Irish, this is often only one aspect of a diverse ancestry. “I am only part Irish,” explains West. “I’m also French, Norwegian and Scottish. Like most Americans, my family arrived as immigrants, and I try to stay connected to my roots as best I can. I celebrate all parts of my heritage, study the history and visit the countries whenever I can. On my travels to Ireland, I enjoyed a beautiful, lush country that totally lives up to the name ‘Emerald Isle.’ I have met some of the warmest, most friendly and welcoming folks ever, especially in our sister city of Bantry. That means a lot to me.”
For O’Shea, being Irish is a way of life. “Living in Ireland gives us all a good quality of life with close contacts with family and friends and, of course, a great appreciation of nature.”
Of course, you don’t have to be Irish to celebrate Irish culture. “My wife is not Irish,” says Stephens. “We waited until the kids were in their 20s before we told them,” he adds with a laugh. “She is a great support and a mainstay for Irishfest for 13 years.” The couple love celebrating Irish culture with their four aptly named children: Kelley, Shannan, Sean and Casey.
As for myself, being Irish means membership in a long line of strong, creative, inventive and tenacious individuals who know how to enjoy life. It’s good being Irish.
Overcoming Public Opinion
Things weren’t always fun and festive for the Irish, though. When Ireland’s Great Potato Famine hit in 1845, approximately 1 million poor, uneducated and starving Irish immigrants fled to America for survival. The new arrivals were met with suspicion and disliked for their foreignness, including their Catholic religious beliefs and unusual accents. The Irish were relegated to the bottom of the social ladder, where they struggled to find employment and make ends meet. When the immigrants gathered in cities across America to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, revelers were portrayed in newspaper cartoons as violent, drunk monkeys.
However, in time, the tide turned. Their numbers gave them political power. They organized, and their voting block, aptly called the “green machine,” put them on the map. This gave them status, and soon the very St. Patrick’s Day celebrations that were once frowned upon became popular events for locals and political hopefuls alike. When President Harry S. Truman attended the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1948, it was a proud moment that marked the progression of a people who had overcome much to claim their place in the world.