Thursday, March 17, 2011

Six Surprising Facts About St. Patrick's Day...


For anyone in the Irish pub business, St. Patrick’s Day is the biggest day of the year. All across New Jersey and America, bars and restaurants will welcome big crowds, pour countless pints of Guinness and serve millions of pounds of corned beef and cabbage.

People are often quite surprised when I explain how totally different the holiday is here in America, compared to what I and other Irish natives experienced growing up. Saint Patrick's Day (Lá Fhéile Pádraig) was traditionally a religious holiday celebrating the man credited with converting Ireland to Christianity. While there is certainly still a religious aspect to observances in the U.S., it is much more of a secular celebration of Irish culture and heritage.

People are often surprised when I tell them things about Ireland and about St. Patrick’s Day.

1. St. Patrick was not born in Ireland: March 17th is the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death, not his birthday. In fact, he was not born in Ireland; Patrick was the son of Roman nobleman in England and was kidnapped and taken to Ireland by his captors. He was sold into slavery and worked as a herdsman for six years. Patrick escaped after the voice of God instructed him to flee by ship from Wexford. He traveled to the European continent and joined a monastery. He became a priest and realized his destiny was to convert the Irish to Christianity.

He continued this mission across the island of Ireland until he passed away on March 17th, 461.

2. St. Patrick was never canonized by the Catholic Church: St. Patrick was not canonized by the Roman Catholic Church; that’s because there was no formal canonization process until the Middle Ages. Patrick was already considered a saint by the time the official process for canonization was established around the 12th century.

3. Until recently, the pubs in Ireland were closed on St. Patrick’s Day: St. Patrick’s Day is a holy day of obligation to attend mass in Ireland. In fact, up until the 1970s, the law required that pubs remained closed on March 17th. It wasn’t until I came to America that I encountered St. Patrick’s Day as a boisterous, primarily secular celebration of heritage.

4. People in Ireland don’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day: You don’t have to wear green in Ireland because everybody is already Irish. (They don’t eat green bagels or drink green beer either.) However, the green shamrock – which has three leaves, not four – is appropriately associated with the day, since it was the vehicle by which St. Patrick explained the Holy Trinity when converting the Irish to Christianity.

5. Corned beef and cabbage is not a traditional meal in Ireland: For a long time, Ireland was a poor country, and people couldn’t afford beef. More likely, they ate boiled bacon if they had any meat at all. Many Irish emigrants never ate beef until they left their native country and achieved some level of prosperity in America. The popularity of corned beef and cabbage is an Irish-American phenomenon. It will be the top selling menu item at traditional Irish pubs like Kilkenny House on St. Patrick’s Day. However, few restaurants in Ireland offer corned beef and cabbage – and those that do are likely serving it to tourists.

6. The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade was in New York, not Dublin: The St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City pre-dates the Declaration of Independence and will take place for the 250th time this year. Dublin did not host its first St. Patrick’s Day Parade until the 1930s, and it was decades later that the country created the Saint Patrick's Festival to promote March tourism. If anything, the Irish are more likely to come to the U.S. to partake in the fun.

Coming to this country changes one’s perspective on many things. In my case, it was an increased understanding of the reasons why Irish Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and passionately embrace a country across an ocean that they might not have ever visited. America is a nation of immigrants, and no matter where their country of origin is, people take pride in the traditions they bring with them from their homelands. That’s why you’ll hear Irish ballads, bagpipes and see adorable step dancers perform at pubs and restaurants across the state and the country.

I feel fortunate to be able to share Irish culture and heritage here with other Irish natives, with those whose families left generations ago, and those who have no Irish connection at all. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Barry O’Donovan is the owner of Kilkenny House Pub & Restaurant, in Cranford, NJ

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