St. Patrick's day is known throughout the United States as a day for celebrating Irish and Irish-American heritage and tradition — or maybe just a day to eat green food and drink with friends. But, as with any holiday, sometimes the myths and legends overshadow the roots.
We reached out to people in and around McPherson County who have been involved with the Ulster Project, a program that pairs teens from North Ireland with teens from McPherson County each summer, to help separate the myths from the facts, and to find out how St. Patrick's Day is celebrated differently in the United States and in Ireland.
1. Perhaps the most persistent myths are those that surround the man himself. Legend holds that St. Patrick was a Catholic Irish Priest who brought Christianity to the Emerald Isle and banished snakes from its shores, eventually earning his sainthood.
While these deeds make for good stories, many don't hold up to historical scrutiny.
"St. Patrick was not born in Ireland. He was either Scottish or Roman England," said Keith Neill, coordinator for the Ulster Project who moved to Hutchinson from Ireland three years ago. Patrick came to Ireland as a missionary, where he preached for over 20 years.
And as for the snakes? Turns out the Irish should thank geography, not St. Patrick, for their serpent-free island. Ireland has either been too cold or too surrounded by water for snakes to slither in.
"There never were snakes in Ireland," Neill said.
2. The original St. Patrick's Day celebrations were very different from modern revelry. As one might expect from a holiday named after a Catholic Saint, the day was initially a day of somber prayer in church or at home. It's only in modern times that the day has taken on its more lively aspects — and those started in the United States.
"When the Irish immigrated to America, St. Patrick's Day became an important day to take pride in Irish heritage in the states, and it took on a number of reinvented traditions," Neill said. These include parties and parades and many of the traditional Irish foods served up every March 17.
3. Turns out, the traditional St. Patrick's corned beef and cabbage is an American tradition, not an Irish one.
"We served corned beef and cabbage for many years for a fundraiser thinking that this was a dish that many eat over there on St Patrick's Day," said Kim Glazner, whose family hosted Irish teens for two years and Irish counselors for six. "Many of the teens have told me that they have never eaten that on St Patrick's Day and that it really isn't a common meal that the Irish eat anymore. They were surprised that we thought that!"
Salt-cured beef is an Irish dish, but pork has historically been much more readily available. Celebrations in Ireland serve a type of bacon similar to ham, but Irish-American immigrants substituted corned beef because they could buy it more cheaply from their Jewish neighbors in cities both groups immigrated to, primarily in New England.
4. In the United States, St. Patrick's Day has become largely divorced from its religious roots, but this isn't the case in Ireland.
"Especially in Northern Ireland, which is so divided between Protestant and Catholic, I can’t imagine that St. Patrick’s day is even that widely celebrated. Given that Patrick was a Catholic saint, I’m guessing the Protestants don’t have much to do with it," said Shawn Flory Replogle, who has been planning Ulster Project programs for 11 years. "In that sense, St. Patrick’s Day in America is a 'holiday' that transcends religion; the commercialization of it sure supports that line of thinking."
Americanized celebrations have gained popularity in Ireland, though, so one might say the cultural influence has come full circle.
5. Don't worry that you might be celebrating St. Patrick's Day "wrong." Just because the tradition started in the New World doesn't mean it's bad — in fact, the Irish have started adopting those traditions as well.
"Although a few parades have materialized in major cities such as Dublin, the homeland Irish maintain a low profile compared with their American relatives across the pond," Neill said. "Did you know that it wasn’t until 1995 when the Irish government decided to start holding a parade in Dublin, to help boost tourism? It’s now known in Ireland as St. Patrick’s festival, which takes place over five days with events including art shows, plays, concerts, fun fairs and the main parade."
The biggest celebrations outside cities take place in Downpatrick, County Down, where St. Patrick is said to be buried. Ireland is also home to the shortest St. Patrick's Day parade in the world, which takes place in Dripsey, County Cork.
"The parade lasts just 100 yards and travels between the village's two pubs," Neill said.