Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Erin Go Braugh!

In my last post, I mentioned having written several pieces for a now defunct local monthly publication. While tracking down the "Daffodil" piece last night, I also came across this piece about St. Patrick's Day. So, since today is St. Patrick's Day, I decided to bring it out of its moldy storage spot on a cd where I have stored other pieces I wrote back then, and post it here for your reading pleasure.

This is in honor of my kids' Irish ethnic heritage, which I didn't give them, since as you know, my background is Swedish and Scottish. However, their father has a lot of Irish in his family history so my kids get that ethnic background from him.

Jennifer Hill Ertmer
Published, March 2005 -West Branch Review

Regardless of your ethnic background, or religious beliefs, there is one holiday that has become so well known, world-wide, that almost everyone of us tries to find a way to lay claim on the date that honors the Patron Saint of Ireland to having a least a “wee bit” of the Irish in us!

March 17th, the date that commemorates the death of St. Patrick, is one that is probably the best-known holiday and recognized in just about every household. But, just how much do you really know about St. Paddy and his work?

Did you know that he was born not in Ireland but in Wales, over 1,600 years ago in 385 A.D.? Born to wealthy parents and given the name of Maewyn, he was a pagan until after he was kidnapped by Irish marauders at the age of 16 and taken to Ireland where he was held in captivity for six years. It was during those six years, while working as a shepherd, that he became a devout Christian.

Eventually, he escaped this life of bondage and made his way to Gaul (now known generally as France) where he studied in a monastery under St. Germain, Bishop of Auxerre for the next twelve years. It was during this period of learning and training that he came to believe his calling was to convert the pagans to Christianity. Although his desire was to be returned to Ireland, this appointment was first given to St. Palladius. However, a short two years later, St. Palladius was transferred to Scotland and Patrick, as Maewyn now called himself, was then named Second Bishop to Ireland.

For the next thirty years, he worked hard at converting the pagans and while traveling throughout Ireland, he established monasteries and set up schools and churches to aid in the conversion of the Irish people to Christianity. His success in this work frequently upset the Celtic Druids, who arrested him on numerous occasions but he managed to escape each time.

He retired eventually to County Down in Ireland and died on March 17, 461 A.D. and that date has been commemorated ever since as St. Patrick’s Day.

Although there are many legends that surround St. Patrick, many of these are just that – legends or stories that have grown over time and been embellished by the telling and retelling of St. Patrick and his work in Ireland.

Some tales say Patrick raised people from the dead but one that is frequently told is that he drove all the snakes from Ireland. However, snakes were never native to Ireland so some have come to believe this is actually a metaphor for his work of converting the pagans to Christianity.

The shamrock and how it came to be Ireland’s national emblem is believed to have it origin in many of St. Patrick’s sermons. Shamrocks –also called the “seamroy” by the Celts – was a sacred plant of ancient Ireland which symbolized the rebirth of spring but supposedly St. Patrick used this plant to show how the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, could exist as three separate being in one entity by using this three-leafed clover to illustrate this Christian belief. In later years, when the English took over Ireland and tried to make Catholicism as well as the use of the Irish language illegal, many Irish then took the shamrock as a symbol of pride in their Irish heritage and to show disdain for the English and their ruling of Ireland.

Leprechauns are another part of Irish folklore too. The name “lobaircin” –which means “Small-bodied fellow” is believed to come from the Celts and their belief in fairies or tiny men and women with magical powers who served good or evil. Leprechauns are known for their trickery that was believed to be used to protect their treasure and originally, they had nothing at all to do with St. Patrick and the celebration of a Catholic holy day. The cheerful leprechaun many of us think of today is actually something invented in 1959 when Walt Disney released a film called Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Another tradition many of us incorporate into the celebrating of St. Patrick’s Day is corned beef and cabbage. Because St. Patrick’s Day always falls during the Christian observation of the period of Lent – a very solemn and prayful six week period – and a time when fasting was often a mandatory thing with no meats being consumed and no drink or partying allowed either, St. Patrick’s Day was a time of feasting usually with bacon and cabbage. But, serving corned beef with that cabbage is also yet another way that an Irish tradition became Americanized when Irish immigrants, living in New York City on the lower East Side, began to substitute corned beef in place of Irish bacon to save money. This less expensive alternative was something they learned from many of their Jewish neighbors!

Even the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is something that originated in America – not in Ireland. It began in New York City in 1762 as a means for Irish soldiers serving in the English military to reconnect with their Irish roots. Some of the “Irish Aid” societies, such as Friendly Sons of St. Patrick or the Hibernian Society grew out of the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations from 1762 through 1797.

Most of the earliest Irish immigrants to America were from the Protestant middle class but the Great Potato Famine of 1845 in Ireland is often the event many think of that attributes the huge influx of Irish immigrants to this country. This Famine struck the poor and uneducated of Ireland the hardest and forced many of them to flee, by the millions, to America in search of a better way of life. Unfortunately, for many decades, these Irish immigrants were often looked down on and finding employment here was almost as difficult for them as it had been in the old country. Eventually though, the multitudes of immigrants from Ireland began to succeed in the American way of life with one descendant of Irish immigrants eventually becoming President of the United States – John F. Kennedy!

Back in 1962, the city of Chicago became famous for yet another annual event by putting green dye in the waters of the Chicago River. This started from city pollution-control workers who used dyes to try to trace illegal sewage discharge and the thought was that this would be a different way to help celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The first year, they put 100 pounds of green vegetable dye in the river that kept the water green for a week. Today, they only use roughly 40 pounds of dye which makes the river green for a few hours. Is this maybe where the idea started to put green food coloring into draft beer for serving on St. Patrick’s Day? Just a little “food for thought” there, isn’t it?

So, whatever your own ethnic or religious background may be, put a shamrock on your lapel, remember the leprechauns and snakes, have some corned beef and cabbage and maybe even a brew or two of green beer and kick up your heels to celebrate St. Patrick and his day!

Ethnically speaking, I’m Scottish and Swedish, but every March 17th, I join with my children to celebrate the Irish part of their ancestry that comes through from their Dad’s family tree. Who knows, maybe you can celebrate vicariously too?

Erin Go Braugh!


Hammer said...

Thanks for the fantastic history lesson! I need to stop telling my kids the snake story.


Travis said...

I knew some of that history, but I did learn a few new things.