Getting your Irish up for St. Patrick’s Day
Last updated 3/15/2022 at Noon
I’ve always been a wee bit of a Celtophile.
Almost all of the music I listen to on any given day has “Celtic” roots. We named our daughter Ceili (pronounced Kay-lee), which is Irish Gaelic for a party with traditional music, dancing, and storytelling. I cut my storytelling teeth on the tales of another Celtophile, the pulp fictioneer Robert E. Howard, and named our dearly missed dog Conan (Gaelic for “little wolf”).
It’s more an affinity than a matter of heritage. My ancestry is a mutt-mix of English, Irish, Scots-Irish, Swedish, and German — with the German predominant on both sides of the family. Curiously, I don’t listen to polka music…
St. Patrick’s Day is, of course, the one day each year in which everybody — regardless of ethnicity — is a Celt. Specifically, Irish. The date purportedly marks the death of the fifth-century patron saint of Ireland, who, according to legend, explained the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish using the shamrock as a classroom prop, and chased the snakes out of the Emerald Isle.
March 17 has been a feast day since medieval times. In my household, we always feast on the traditional fare of corned beef and cabbage. Umm, well… it’s been traditional in America since the turn of the 20th century. According to most historical sources, Irish immigrants to New York City picked up corned beef as an alternative to more expensive cuts — from Jewish New Yorkers.
There’s always been plenty of cultural appropriation to go around.
The Irish diaspora spread St. Paddy’s celebrations all across the globe. That’s in part due to the influence of large Irish contingents in the army of the British Empire, which spanned the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries. There’s some irony in this, of course. Ireland was England’s first colony, and an egregiously abused one at that. But imperial armies have always counted on the impoverished sons of colonized peoples to fill the ranks. So, colonized Irishmen helped to colonize others.
The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City was conducted in 1772, by British Army soldiers homesick for the Old Sod. Nowadays, that parade is one of the biggest events of its type in the world. Traditional Irish enclaves like New York City, Boston, and Chicago go all-in on the March 17 celebrations (at least they did pre-COVID). Chicago dyes the river that runs through its downtown a vivid shamrock green.
American Irish enclaves are not confined to the Northeast and the Midwest. Many Irish came through the port of New Orleans in the 19th century — and stayed there to lend a touch o’ the green to that gloriously heterogeneous city.
Many Irish went West.
The magnificent Irish-American band Solas created a multimedia concert celebration of the Irish miners of Butte, Montana, titled “Shamrock City,” which they brought to a Sisters Folk Festival Winter Concert a few years back. The program was inspired by the story of bandleader Seamus Egan’s ancestor Michael Conway, who met a terrible end, beaten to death over a fixed boxing match.
Nugget columnist Craig Rullman is working on a documentary film that depicts the buckaroo culture around Paisley, Oregon, where names like Murphy and O’Leary abound — because young Irishmen pioneered the area around the turn of the 20th century.
The vivid St. Patrick’s Day “traditions” — the corned beef and cabbage dinner, the drinking of the Guinness stout, the wearing of the green — belong to everybody. No sense in being a stickler for purity.
Robert E. Howard wrote an amusing letter to a friend to that effect, regarding the wearing of the green:
“How many of those who wear purely Gaelic surnames don’t have the blood of Danes, Welsh, English, or Dutch in them? Blasted few. I’ll admit my blood is more or less mixed up — but how many people in Europe and America are not of mixed bloods? If nobody but a pure Celt wore the green, it wouldn’t be worn except perhaps by a few savages living in the Connaught hills. A man has too many grandparents to be pure blooded anything.” (Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 2, p. 33).
True enough, that.
So, as we celebrate St. Paddy’s Day and Irish culture, we’re also celebrating a uniquely American culture defined by the motto E Pluribus Unum — “Out of Many, One.”
And that, methinks, calls for a bit o’ Dropkick Murphys, so it does.