A People's History of St. Patrick's Day

Facts and myths about the great Saint Patrick, plus event listings

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St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most celebrated, if not intoxicating, holidays in the United States. It’s steeped in both Irish and American history and commonly considered to be the first greening of spring. And while March 17 may be best known for its draughts and revelry, its history may surprise you.

As many of us know, St. Patrick’s Day is named after St. Patrick, a fifth century priest who was responsible for spreading Christianity throughout Ireland. But what many don’t realize is that St. Patrick wasn’t Irish — he was born in Britain to Roman colonists. When he was 16 years old, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and held captive in Ireland to work as a slave. Six years later, Patrick walked 200 miles to the coast of Ireland (all uphill) where he escaped to Britain and dedicated his life to the Catholic Church. This was one tough saint.

According to legend, God came to Patrick in a dream and asked the young priest to return to Ireland and convert its Celtic natives to Catholicism. Those highfalutin sun worshippers didn’t know what hit ’em: A century later Ireland was predominantly Catholic.

During his crusade, St. Patrick was said to perform miracles. In his most famous feat, he banished the snakes from Ireland, making him the original Orkin®Man. However, historians now believe there were no snakes in Ireland long before St. Patrick, so unless he travelled in time to prevent their migration, it was unlikely he dabbled in pest control.
Originally, St. Patrick’s Day festivities were small family affairs where neighbors joined for food and fun. “People played instruments or told stories in the kitchen, which eventually grew into larger celebrations,” says Maureen Kennedy, director of the Irish Heritage Center of Greater Cincinnati. These small “clan” gatherings evolved into one of the largest spring festivals of the year.

The holiday amplified as more people joined the feasts. “If you go to Ireland, they say you’ll never meet a stranger,” says Kennedy. “These gatherings developed because of their friendliness.”

Today, St. Patrick’s Day has become as much a tribute to Irish-Americans as to St. Patrick himself, due to their large presence in American society.

The Great Potato Famine forced millions of Irish people to leave for the United States. Before the famine, Ireland’s population was more than 8 million. Now it’s about half that.

As Irish immigrants searched for work in the 1840s and ’50s, many found their way to Cincinnati from major hubs like New Orleans or New York City. As they arrived in the Queen City, Irish immigrants were employed as farmers, plasters and unskilled workers as they built a new life.

Irish Traditions and Customs

St. Patrick’s Day wouldn’t be complete without the rowdiest of gingers: the leprechaun. Although leprechauns are a welcome symbol of Irish heritage, their depictions were originally meant to be hostile. The American leprechaun evolved from newspaper cartoons that denounced Irish immigrants in the 19th century. With features like upturned noses and an exaggerated capacity for brawling, the caricatures were penned to incite readers against Irish immigration. Eventually the portrayals were tuned down and Irish immigrants embraced the character, making him an important part of March 17.
Even though we wear green to signify our Irish pride, the holiday formerly featured another color — blue. The use of green during St. Patrick’s Day began during the 1798 Irish Rebellion, when nationalists began using the green shamrock as their national symbol, and the trend stayed. But the light blue hue can still be found in many Irish symbols and flags today.

Sometimes the best customs are the edible ones, and Irish dishes certainly come out in force during the holiday. Look to your local Irish pubs and restaurants on March 17, as many will be offering special St. Patty’s Day menus. “We always have classics like corned beef, fish and chips and, of course, shepherd’s pie,” says Paul Shanley, owner of Molly Malone’s in Covington. And Americans are still in the process of adding new St. Patty’s traditions: “For those that want to start early, Kegs and Eggs begins at 7 a.m.,” Shanley says.

And while corned beef may be authentic St. Patrick’s Day cuisine, the dish became part of the holiday when Irish immigrants came to the United States. Boiled bacon was the traditional Irish dish, but historians suggest that Irish-Americans adopted the salty beef from their Jewish neighbors, likely because it was easier to keep and a low-cost alternative.

So this weekend, try and entertain your friends with a few St. Patty’s Day facts.  They might return the favor by picking up the next round. Sláinte!

St. Patrick's Day Events:

St. Patrick’s Day Beer Dinner: Irish or not, if you love all things beer you’ll want to make reservations for this beer dinner hosted by Hoperatives and Parkers Blue Ash Tavern. The menu includes smoked salmon, cheddar ale soup, Irish lamb stew, chocolate potato cake for dessert and plenty of Irish beer. Cost is $40; $35 for Hoperatives members. Reservations are required and should be made by calling 513-891-8300. March 14. Parkers Blue Ash Tavern, 4200 Cooper Road, Blue Ash.

St. Patrick’s Day Celebration of Song and Dance: Featuring music from Foley Road and a special performance by the McGing Irish Dancers, this tribute to the Irish heritage is fun and family friendly. 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m. March 16. Free. Cincinnati Public Library Atrium, Main Branch, 800 Vine St., Downtown, 513-369-6900, www.cincinnatilibrary.org/main.

Dave Hawkins and Celtic Core: Cincinnati/Nashville’s Dave Hawkins is joined by the group Celtic Core for two performances of Irish music, dance and fun. 5 p.m. March 16 and 2 p.m. March 17 at the Moerlein Lager House. Free show for all ages. 115 Joe Nuxhall Way, Downtown, 513-421-2337.

St. Patrick’s Day Parade: Watch as bag pipers, dancers and Irish enthusiasts from around Cincinnati fill the streets of downtown. Every year since 1967 — rain, snow or shine — Cincinnati has presented one of the top parades of the holiday. Kicking off at Second Street, the route loops around Main Street, passes Fountain Square and goes back down Elm Street. 12 p.m. March 17, www.cincystpatsparade.com.

Claddagh’s All Day Celebration: Starting early in the morning with kegs and eggs, Claddagh Irish Pub plans to keep the Irish spirit alive with traditional Irish dishes, beer and 14 hours of live entertainment. The festivities include bagpipers and dancers. 9-12 a.m. March 17. 1 Levee Way Suite 2122, Newport, 859-581-8888, www.claddaghirishpubs.com.

St. Patrick’s Day Celebration: Enjoy a day for the whole family. Music, story telling, comedy skits, arts and crafts and dancing will be happening all day. Irish style food will be available along with Irish beer and whiskey. Sponsored by the Irish Heritage Center of Greater Cincinnati, the doors open at 11 a.m. with entertainment starting at 2:30 p.m. March 17. $5 in advance, $7 at the door. Irish Heritage Center, 3905 Eastern Ave., Columbia-Tusculum, 513-533-0100, www.irishcenterofcincinnati.com.

St. Patrick’s Day on Court Street: Start your day right with Molly Malone’s kegs and eggs starting at 7 a.m. The first 100 people will receive a free Molly Malone’s T-shirt. Court Street will be closed for the day, making room for a tented area with bars and the area’s finest Irish bands including the Cincinnati Emerald Society Police & Fire Pipe & Drums. Irish dancers will also be on hand throughout the day. 7 a.m.-1 a.m. March 17. Molly Malone’s, 112 E. Fourth St., Covington. www.covington.mollymalonesirishpub.com.

Screaming Orphans: A group of sisters from Ireland that began as Sinead O’Connor’s backup band will grace the stage for a night of music that mixes the influences of Simon & Garfunkel and REM. 8 p.m. March 17. $12-$15. Fairfield Community Arts Center, 411 Wessel Dr., Fairfield. 513-867-5348, www.fairfield-city.org/cac.

Claddagh’s Family Day: Bring the kids and let them enjoy a character sketch artist, clowns, games and give-a-ways. Kids eat free. 11 a.m-11 p.m. March 18. 1 Levee Way Suite 2122, Newport, 859-581-8888, www.claddaghirishpubs.com

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