It’s easy to love the U.S.A.
Not just for its many freedoms and its rolling fields and majestic hills, but because it’s a cultural melting pot consisting of dozens of nationalities and customs. It’s what makes us who we are. From Santa Claus to barbecue, we’ve adopted innumerable traditions from every nationality that has immigrated here.
Most of the time, when culture-specific practices are added to our giant cauldron, Americans modify them to meet our own tastes. Sometimes, unfortunately, those traditions can be changed into something barely recognizable. We do that with food a lot. Chef Boyardee’s spaghetti & meatballs bears no resemblance to the original Italian dish, spaghetti e polpette. And Taco Bell? Please.
But sometimes — rarely, I grant — we take a custom and make it bigger and better. We improve on it so much that the country of origin adopts our version of the practice.
In books and video, both Boston College professor Mike Cronin and the U.S. Embassy in Dublin have made strong arguments that St. Patrick’s Day is one of those events. They claim that much of the world will join in with what is actually an American-inspired tradition of honoring the day by raising a glass (or two, or three). Our Irish cousins across the pond will also be celebrating the feast day of their patron saint. We’re happy to have provided them the opportunity to kick up their heels. But let no one forget that it was Irish-Americans who turned the day into one of jubilation — and we still do it better than the Irish. It’s they who have adopted our practices.
Sure, the Irish get the day off work: Since 1903, March 17 has been an official public holiday in Ireland, but it is also a Vatican-sanctioned observance of the saint’s death.
In Eire, 83 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. St. Patrick’s Day is technically a holy day of obligation. Everyone who is able is supposed to attend mass. For centuries, the Irish spent the day quietly at church and at home. There were no parties, no green beer, and not a battery-lit, flashing shamrock necklace to be found.
It wasn’t until 1920 that the first parade — a somber military display — was held in Dublin. And not until the latter half of the 20th century did Ireland begin to observe the day with festivities and parades. Shocking as it may seem, until the late 1960s, every pub across the Emerald Isle was closed on March 17.
That is far later than the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade that took place in 1766 in New York City. Irish Catholic members of the British Army marched with fifes and drums to pay tribute to their patron saint.
The first officially sanctioned “fun” St. Patrick’s Day celebration took place in Philadelphia in 1771. The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, an organization founded to provide relief to Irish immigrants, observed the day with a parade and many festivities for the city’s Irish community.
The feast day continued to grow in popularity in the States as the numbers of Irish immigrants ballooned after the Civil War. Those new arrivals were not greeted with open arms; they were regarded as illiterate, drunken louts. No “Welcome to America” for them — rather, they were met with signs reading “No Irish need apply.”
Immigrants from Eire dearly missed their homeland. The harsh treatment, the ugly concrete environs, and the stifling heat and bone-chilling cold of cities like New York and Boston were devastating to a people used to rolling green hills and a soft, temperate climate.
No wonder, then, these immigrants sought out one another. Their Catholic faith, so scorned and derided by multitudes of American Protestants, gave them comfort and solace. Their shared memories of the homeland gave them strength.
But despite the harsh welcome, the Irish quickly came to appreciate the freedoms and unlimited opportunities of their new country. No longer under the tyrannical thumb of English rule, the Irish blossomed in the United States. They assimilated faster than perhaps any other group of immigrants. Within a generation, there were Irish politicians, union bosses, college professors, and successful businessmen and -women.
But the Irish-Americans always carried inside themselves a love of Ireland and Irish symbols. St. Patrick’s Day parties and parades quickly sprang up in every town and city where Irish-Americans could be found — and that is a great many. For if any group of immigrants ever went forth and multiplied, it was the 4.5 million Irish who arrived on our shores. Nearly 35 million Americans today share the same DNA as our kinfolk across the sea.
On this day, Americans who claim Irish descent — and even those who don’t — will raise a toast to the beloved saint. They will be joined across the world by other Irish descendants and a great number of non-Irish. Few people know much about Patrick or even why he is a saint; however, the day is still a fine opportunity to celebrate a people who have overcome tragedy and struggle with great perseverance, faith, and humor. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Slainte!