THE GREEN MACHINE
St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint who is credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish people, lived during the 5th century (AD 385-461). Born in Roman Britain to a wealthy Christian family (his grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon), he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and brought to Gaelic Ireland as a slave at age 16. There he spent six years as a shepherd before a religious vision led him to escape. He returned to Ireland around 432 determined to convert the pagan Irish; he established monasteries, churches and schools. Legend holds that he explained the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) using the three leaves of the shamrock, a native Irish clover. His efforts against the druids were eventually turned into an allegory in which he drove the “snakes” out of Ireland. St. Patrick is believed to have died March 17, 461.
St. Patrick’s Day began as an official Christian Feast Day observed annually on March 17. Since it is a religious holiday, and one that falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat and alcohol are lifted for the occasion, allowing people to dance, drink and feast on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage.
Over time, the holiday expanded to become a secular celebration of Irish culture and the Irish people, especially for those Irish who immigrated to other parts of the world. Boston claims to have held a St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, followed by a parade held in 1762 in New York City by Irish soldiers serving in the English military. Over the next decades, Irish patriotism among American immigrants flourished, and Irish Aid societies like the Hibernian Society and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick held annual parades with bagpipes and drums. In 1848, the New York City parades were merged into one official St. Patrick’s Day Parade, now the world’s oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States.
Until the mid 19th century, most Irish immigrants to America were middle class Protestants. When the Great Potato Famine struck Ireland in 1845, close to one million poor and uneducated Irish Catholics poured into America to escape starvation. They were met with racial stereotyping and prejudice by the Protestant majority who disliked their alien religious beliefs and unfamiliar accents. As a consequence, shop windows filled with “Irish need not apply” signs and immigrants had trouble finding even menial jobs. Cartoons of the period depicted them as drunken, violent monkeys.
But as their numbers grew, Irish Americans came to realize that, if organized, their votes could bring political power, especially in urban areas where their numbers were greatest. Their voting block, known as the “green machine,” became a crucial swing vote for political hopefuls. Parade participation became a necessity for politicians including, in 1948 for the first time, the President of the United States, then Harry S. Truman. And St. Patrick’s Day accompanied the Irish as they moved to other American cities. Since 1962, Chicago has colored its river green in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. That year, city pollution control workers used dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges and realized that green dye might provide a unique way to celebrate the holiday. They released 100 pounds of green vegetable dye – enough to keep the river green for a week (today only 40 pounds are used, and the river turns green for just a few hours).
Although widely celebrated by the Irish diaspora around the world (including the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, to name a few), parades did not spread to Ireland until the late 20th century, and then as an effort to increase tourism. St. Patrick’s Day remained a religious holiday in Ireland until the 1970s, and Irish law mandated that pubs be closed on March 17th. Beginning in 1995 the Irish government began a national campaign to use interest in St. Patrick’s Day to drive tourism and showcase Ireland and Irish culture to the rest of the world. Dublin now hosts an annual St. Patrick’s Festival that features parades, concerts, outdoor theater productions and fireworks.
MENU: AN AMERICAN ST. PATRICK’S DAY DINNER