The Ladies' Tea Guild

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Early St. Patrick's Day traditions.

Hore Abbey, Cashel Ireland.  Photo:
By the 17th century, St. Patrick’s Day was still primarily a religious holiday, marked with a special Mass and religious symbolism. Secular celebrations of the holiday fed off of and extended the religious activity, and included processions to the church, which undoubtedly became the popular parades of today.  Instead of wearing green, 17th century upper and middle class Irishmen and women made and wore crosses on badges, probably using the popular Celtic cross, while the lower class residents pinned a shamrock to their hat for the day.  Due to pressure from England to abandon the Irish language and culture, the shamrock was becoming a nationalist symbol for the Irish.

Bacon and cabbage. Photo: Ayumi, Wikipedia. Creative Commons 2.0
Holiday feasting did not include corned beef and cabbage as it does today in the United States, but roast pork and vegetables: while Ireland has a tradition of cattle herding, the local practice was to consume the milk in cream, cheese and other dairy products, and export the meat. By the 17th century almost all of the beef was exported to England, and within Ireland, beef was an expensive luxury, so pork was the staple meat, with lamb saved for holidays.  Like most early Christian saints’ days, fasting from meat (and eating fish) was the order of the day, also because St. Patrick’s Day falls in the middle of Lent, but according to legend, roast pork was called “St. Patrick’s Fish” and was allowed on this saint’s day only, and bacon and cabbage became very popular.

Besides the traditional roast pork, another early Irish tradition was the "Wetting" or "Drowning" of the shamrock.  Fasting from alcohol was also apparently suspended on St. Patrick’s Day so that the men could "sell" the shamrock they wore to the local landowner, for a small sum of money, which they could then use at the local taverns to buy “the pota Pádraig, or ‘Patrick's Pot’” which was, of course, filled with alcohol.  Larger celebrations were uncommon in Ireland at the time. 

Irish colonists in North America, in particular, marked the day with parades as well as feasting.  These celebrations quickly became political statements as well as expressions of Irish identity and culture.  According to historical record, the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration occurred before the American Revolution, as the Irish colonists, and Irish soldiers among the British regiments in Boston and New York put together small parades and fife and drum concerts.  The officers of the regiments formed themselves into a cultural society for the purpose of organizing these celebrations, along with the drinking of toasts to the King of England as well as “the prosperity of Ireland” with the public.  With the advent of war with England, Irish Americans stopped the parades and toasting the King’s health, and instead toasted the Irish as they struggled for their own independence at about the same time.  In 1780 George Washington is said to have given American soldiers the day off on March 17th as a gesture of solidarity with the Irish. 

With the end of the war, and the securing of American independence, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations resumed in New York, Boston and other cities, led by new American citizens, and included fife and drum music, banquets, and parades marching from parish churches to the most prominent church or cathedral in the area.  Irish newcomers found beef – especially beef preserved with coarse salt, or “corned beef” – to be much cheaper than in Ireland, and they began to use it in place of the traditional pork for their holiday feasts.  Instead of roasting the meat and vegetables, they adapted the common English “boiled supper” to their tastes, and soaked the salt out of the beef before boiling it with the cabbage and root vegetables that they knew from Ireland.  The corned beef supper, then is a tradition among Irish-Americans only! 

Parades and drinking toasts continued through the 18th century and into the 19th, and as conditions in Ireland grew worse and the Irish population in the United States grew, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations got bigger and bigger.  The rapidly swelling population, combined with competitions for the best parades, and the drinking of toasts, meant that things could and did often get rowdy on St. Patrick’s Day.  This worried the more settled Irish-American citizens, who already saw attitudes towards the Irish turning negative.

Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.

Sources: "St. Patrick's Day" from
"10 Things You Didn't Know About St. Patrick's Day" by Frances Romero
“History of St. Patrick’s Day is Long and Colorful” by Robert McNamara 
“St. Patrick’s Day” Wikipedia article
“Corned Beef” Wikipedia article
“Saint Patrick's Day Parades: How this Tradition Developed in the USA and was Re-Imported to Ireland” by Bernd Biege
“A Traditional Saint Patrick's Day: How the Irish Remembered and Celebrated Saint Patrick in the Old Days” by Bernd Biege
"Irish tea, Ireland's national beverage" by Michael Ogden
"Old Irish food recipes" by Michael Ogden
"The History of Saint Patrick" by Michael Ogden
"Irish Tea Party"
"Bigelow Tea looks at tea in Ireland"
“History of Ireland”

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)