March 14, 2014

A St. Patrick’s Day history lesson

Bowl of Irish stew with soda bread

Bowl of Irish stew with soda bread

When it comes to St. Patrick’s Day, I’m somewhat out of the loop (mostly by heritage). But I was curious: Why do so many people love to participate in this celebration?

Ask anyone, “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind about St. Patrick’s Day?” and you get a lot of different answers. Some mention religious aspects; some refer to the mythical leprechauns; others wax poetic about corned beef, Irish Potato candies and green beer. But who was St. Patrick?

Well, he wasn’t Irish and his name wasn’t Patrick. Born in Britain (possibly Wales) in the late 4th century, Maewyn Succat was kidnapped and enslaved by Irish raiders when he was a teenager and taken to Ireland. He escaped after six years to return to Britain and become a priest. That’s when he took the name Patrick. He later returned to Ireland as a missionary to spread Christianity.

Also, technically, he wasn’t a saint. He was never canonized by the church. And originally, the color associated with him was blue. According to folklore, St. Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the Christian holy trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This probably helped green gradually edge out blue.

St. Patrick’s Day slowly evolved from a religious observance to a celebration of Irish heritage. In modern-day Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has traditionally been a religious occasion. Up until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on March 17. Beginning in 1995, however, the Irish government began a national campaign to use St. Patrick’s Day as an opportunity to drive tourism and showcase Ireland to the rest of the world. The St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin is a multi-day celebration featuring parades, concerts, outdoor theater productions and fireworks.

St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most recognized unofficial holidays in the United States involving parties, parades and lots of drinking. People tend to turn everything green to celebrate: the Chicago River, public fountains, milkshakes and, of course, beer.

Also, you don’t have to settle for corned beef and cabbage, which is more of an Irish-American tradition than an authentically Irish one. Instead try cabbage and lamb stew accompanied by Irish soda bread, potatoes, bangers and mash, or colcannon (a mashed potato, cabbage and onion dish). Or chow down on boiled ham and cabbage, stew, boxty (a traditional Irish potato pancake), shepherd’s pie, potato bread, and black pudding (a pork blood and oatmeal mix).

So go grab a pint, some colcannon or a green shake and celebrate the guy who didn’t actually drive the snakes out of Ireland — no matter what your heritage is.