Glendalough in County Wicklough. Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.
St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday known for green beer and corned beef, “Kiss me I’m Irish” buttons and ties with shamrocks. In bars the patrons will toast all things Irish and you won’t have to go far on the radio dial to hear “Danny Boy” or maybe something by The Chieftains.
What, then, is the best way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? The answer to that question lies with another, harder one: what does it mean to be Irish-American?
Let’s face it, the Irish have a tough time with their identity, considering their most famous characteristic as an ethnic group is a fondness for drink and a gift for blarney. That said, St. Patrick’s Day shouldn’t be all about drinking, although the beer merchants and bars might have us believe otherwise. It should be a celebration of Irish heritage and of a triumph over terrible adversity.
The Irish never have had it easy. Invaded first by Vikings and then conquered by the English hundreds of years ago, the Irish always have been underdogs.
Being Irish-American in the 1800s and early 1900s often meant being poor and living on the margins of society. It meant suffering the small indignities of poverty, such as walking to save the bus fare or a family living on top of one another in a cramped tenement or never having quite enough to eat. That hard life has fallen to a new wave of immigrants.
Even so, the Irish and Irish-Americans are only now getting over their impoverished past. As best-selling Irish novelist Maeve Binchy put it, “We don’t have to write about deprivation and loss anymore. Ireland is a country that has come out into the sunshine.”
The past wasn’t always so sunny. The bleakest chapter in Irish history may have been The Great Hunger, or An Gorta Mor, as it’s called in Gaelic. It was also The Great Hunger that launched the huge wave of Irish emigration to America.
In 1845, an event of cataclysmic magnitude struck Ireland, and that was the failure of the potato crop. At that time, rural Irish families subsisted almost entirely on potatoes grown in tiny plots. When a disease called blight rotted the potatoes in the ground and in storage, entire villages literally starved to death. Ironically, there was plenty of food to go around in the form of grain, but English landlords chose to export those crops instead of feeding the peasants. Through what some historians now claim was a conscious act of genocide on the part of the English, one million Irish died of starvation and disease and another million were forced to emigrate between 1845 and 1852. My own great-great-grandfather, Matthew Healey, was among those who crowded aboard the “coffin ships” to survive the cruel voyage as best they could.
The emigration didn’t stop with the famine. People became Ireland’s leading export. (How times have changed: Ireland is now a world leader in the export of computer software, second only to the United States.) By 1900, Ireland’s population had dropped from 8 million before the famine to 4.5 million.
Millions of those Irish came to America. In fact, roughly one-fifth of today’s United States population can claim Irish descent. That percentage soars in areas like Boston, of course.
Recently, a memorial to The Great Hunger was unveiled in Boston. Another memorial to Irish immigration and the “potato famine” should be completed at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia this spring.
St. Patrick’s Day is an appropriate time for those of Irish heritage to remember the suffering their ancestors endured. However, what we should celebrate isn’t tragedy but triumph. Millions of Irish came to America with nothing and made a name — and a holiday — for themselves.
In our family, for just this reason, we want St. Patrick’s Day to have special meaning, to be a reminder of where we come from. We are creating traditions of our own that have nothing to do with a bar stool.
Growing up, St. Patrick’s Day was always a major event. There was green beer in quantity, of course, for the grownups and green ginger ale for the kids. Irish music spun on the record player all day. Everyone had to wear something green or risk being pinched. Dinner was corned beef and cabbage with plenty of potatoes on the side.
We’re changing the rules a bit in our own house. Maybe we’ll read aloud a poem by William Butler Yeats or Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel Prize winner. There will be time, too, for family stories — some funny, some sad.
Then bring on some music and Guinness stout and corned beef with colcannon on the side. A meal is always a fine tradition and what better way to celebrate than to transform St. Patrick’s Day into an Irish-American Thanksgiving? We all have many things to be thankful for, thanks to the hardiness of our immigrant ancestors.