Saint Patrick’s Day—when wearing green, eating corned beef and cabbage, and drinking beer has nothing to do with Saint Patrick himself. This month, Megan Maisano explains the history behind the holiday and the American influence on its evolution and popularity.
Somewhere behind the green shamrocks, the Kiss Me, I’m Irish attire, the corned beef and pints of Guinness, lies the fascinating history of Saint Patrick’s Day. The holiday that began as a religious observance for the patron saint of Ireland in the early 10th century, has evolved into an international celebration of Irish culture.
But when it comes to the modern practices we often associate with the holiday … they may as well be as Irish as Saint Patrick himself (hint – he’s not Irish).
History of Saint Patrick
The story of Saint Patrick dates back to the fifth century. Originally named Maewyn Succat, the saint was born to a wealthy family in Britain. When he was a teenager, he was taken as a slave to Ireland and put to work as a shepherd. A religious experience inspired him to become a priest after his escape, and eventually return to the island as a missionary. Legend has it that Saint Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland. While that may sound impressive, truth-be-told there were never any snakes on the island to begin with. The story is often used as an allegory to explain how he converted the Irish from Paganism to Catholicism. March 17th marks the date of Saint Patrick’s supposed death and has remained a holy day ever since.
Until the 1700’s, Saint Patrick’s Day was a holy, and quite somber, day for Irish Christians. But as more Irishmen immigrated to the U.S., particularly during the Great Potato Famine in the mid 1800’s, the holy day became a time for connection amongst Irish immigrants and an outlet to celebrate their shared history. Irish organizations and societies arose, and in 1848, New York City had the first official Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. What was once a holy day of obligation slowly transformed into a patriotic one-day reprieve from lent, allowing indulgences like meat, alcohol, music and festivity. Today, Saint Patrick’s Day is one of the most globally celebrated national holidays.
Saint Patrick’s Day: Things Explained
Up until the 18th century, the color associated with the Order of Saint Patrick was actually blue. The significance of the color green stems from supporters of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, showing their solidarity against the British in red and their loyalty to the native Irish shamrock.
A popular legend about Saint Patrick is that he used a shamrock as a way to symbolize the Holy Trinity and win over Irish Christians. Each leaf of the native clover represented the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The shamrock became an even greater symbol of Irish nationalism when it was worn during the 1798 rebellion.
Corned Beef and Cabbage
Unfortunately, this Saint Patrick’s Day dish does not originate in Ireland. For hundreds of years, the meal had no ties to a specific country, but was rather a practical dish for many European immigrants in the U.S.
The term “corned beef” is British slang for using corn-sized salt crystals to cure meat. In the U.S., few Irish immigrants could find or afford the bacon they grew up with. Instead, they purchased meat from their Jewish neighbors. The kosher butchers made more affordable corned beef from brisket. As a result, the Irish swapped their traditional meal of boiled bacon and potatoes for corned beef and cabbage. Why cabbage? It was one of the cheapest vegetables available.
While the sweet and salty dish gained popularity in immigrant neighborhoods throughout the 19th century, its association with the Irish may not have stuck if it weren’t for George McManus’ popular American comic, “Bringing Up Father.” The comic featured Jiggs and Maggie, an Irish couple who win the lottery and become millionaires. Even as a millionaire, Jiggs’ fondness of playing cards, drinking, smoking, and of course, eating corned beef and cabbage became an influential stereotype of Irish immigrants that lasted beyond the comic strip’s running.
In the mood for this hearty Irish(ish) dish? Try this Genius Kitchen recipe for a crowd-pleasing meal this Saint Patrick’s Day. You’ll get a hefty serving of protein, vitamin B-12, iron, and zinc, as well as vitamin C (boosting that iron absorption), vitamin K, and fiber. The cabbage may also improve your running performance too! Bonus—Guinness beer is one of the ingredients, so you can still technically call it Irish.
Did you know that there is a Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread? Well there is. And just like corned beef and cabbage, soda bread cannot be credited to the Irish either. Sigh. The dish, which is a variety of quick bread that uses baking soda instead of yeast, traces back to Native Americans who used pearl ash (potassium carbonate) to make bread on hot rocks. The bread became associated with the Irish because of its use during the Great Potato Famine. The recipe required few ingredients, didn’t take long, was dense and hearty, and reduced food waste.
Need a simple, go-to, quick bread recipe? This epicurious recipe for Irish soda bread can be made by even the most novice baker. The added raisins (or Craisins, your choice) can boost its fiber content too.
While alcohol is often tied into many religious feasts, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that pubs were open on Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland. As mentioned before, the holiday falls during Lent – a period of Christian repentance. According to a New York Times journalist, Dublin was once “the dullest place on earth to spend St. Patrick’s Day.” But because of the economic and tourism opportunity, Ireland adopted the American way and the rest is drunk history.
Are you a fan of statistics? Then grab yourself a Guinness and learn about how the Student’s T-test was created. Yes, there was Guinness involved.
If baking is more on your mind more than confidence intervals, grab yourself a Guinness AND some Baileys, and make these unforgettable Saint Patrick’s Day cupcakes with this Tide & Thyme recipe (my mother and I made these a few years ago, and I still dream of that Baileys cream frosting).
Conclusion: Who Cares?
Alright, so many of our beloved Saint Patrick’s Day traditions may not necessarily trace to Ireland or to the saint himself. But at the end of the day, who cares? Saint Patrick’s Day offers a nostalgic opportunity for people from all over the world to come together and be Irish for a day. So, go ahead and proudly rock that green t-shirt on March 17th, chances are you won’t be alone.
Megan Maisano is a second year NICBC student and an RD-to-be. Irish by blood and frugal by school, cabbage is a staple food in her fridge. In 2012, she earned her Perfect Pint Pour Certificate from the Guinness factory in Dublin and is available for individual lessons.
- Allan, Patrick. The Real History if St. Patrick’s Day. Lifehacker.com. March 2017. Internet: https://lifehacker.com/the-real-history-of-st-patrick-s-day-1793354674 (accessed February 2018).
- Binchy, Maeve. A Pint for St. Patrick in the New Ireland. The New York Times. March 2001. Internet: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/17/opinion/a-pint-for-st-patrick-in-the-new-ireland.html (accessed February 2018).
- Binder, Julian. The ‘historical’ Saint Patrick. Approaching the Life of Ireland’s Patron Saint. GRIN Verlag. Norderstedt, Germany. 2015.
- Cronin, M. and Adair, D. Wearing of green: A history of St. Patrick’s Day. Routledge. London. 2002.
- History.com. The History of Saint Patrick’s Day. 2009. Internet: http://www.history.com/topics/st-patricks-day/history-of-st-patricks-day (accessed February 2018).
- O’Dwyer, Edward. The History of Soda Bread. The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. Internet: http://www.sodabread.info/history/ (accessed February 2018).
- Ruby, Jeff. Even the Irish Hate Corned Beef and Cabbage. The Daily Beast. March 2017. Internet: https://www.thedailybeast.com/even-the-irish-hate-corned-beef-and-cabbage (accessed February 2018).