Think you know St. Patrick's Day? You're probably full of blarney
Scenes from the 2018 St. Patrick's Day parade in downtown Des Moines. Bryon Houlgrave / The Register
Editor’s note: This column was originally published March 17, 2017.
My full name is Daniel Patric Finney. There's no "k" at the end of Patric because, per family lore, my late Grandma Gertie, of Irish and French descent, said it was more Irish that way.
Personally, I believe it was a misspelling on my birth certificate, the first of many that would haunt me throughout my career in paragraph stacking.
I note this because Friday is St. Patrick's Day. An editor once used my name as an excuse to assign me to cover the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in downtown Des Moines.
I unsuccessfully tried to convince him that I was adopted and had no idea about my actual ancestry. I'm just another ladle of humanity from the great American melting pot.
That's true for lots of people in Iowa and America, except, of course, on Friday, when everyone pretends to be Irish as an excuse to imbibe.
Americans are always looking for a good excuse to embrace debauchery, but have no idea who St. Patrick was.
"For starters, Patrick was British, not Irish," said Simon Cordery, chairman of the Iowa State University history department.
Patrick was born in the age when the Roman Empire controlled Britain. When he was 16, he was captured by Irish pirates and forced into slavery for six years before he escaped.
Patrick eventually became a Catholic missionary and returned to Ireland.
The popular fable states that Patrick achieved sainthood by driving the snakes from the isle of Ireland.
It's more likely, however, that Ireland, like New Zealand, never had any snakes, according to National Geographic.
During the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, the climate in Ireland and New Zealand was inhospitable to the cold-blooded reptiles. So, they never caught on.
A more likely explanation of the fable is that "snakes" are an allegory for druids. Patrick converted the druids to Christianity and apparently was wildly successful.
In 1946, Pope Paul VI declared Ireland the "most Catholic country in the world." Affiliation has waned in recent decades because of the sexual abuse scandals, National Public Radio reported.
Given St. Patrick's devotion, it's ironic that two of the most prominent symbols associated with his day of honor are blarney — the leprechaun and the four-leaf clover.
And as for all those green top hats with buckles worn by bleary adults, the earliest descriptions of leprechauns said the legendary sprites wore red, Samuel Lover wrote in his 1831 book "Legends and Stories of Ireland."
It's the day when millions of people celebrate Ireland's patron saint but do you know the real purpose of a three leaf clover? USA TODAY
The modern image of a leprechaun dolled up in green with a red beard and pipe is an amalgamation of Irish and other European folklore.
As for the four-leaf clover, or shamrock, there is a tie to St. Patrick, it's just that it has too many leaves.
Author Patricia Monaghan writes in "The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore" that the Irish of St. Patrick's time "had a philosophical and cosmological vision of triplicity, with many of their divinities appearing in three."
St. Patrick used the three-leaf clover to teach the Christian belief of the holy trinity, Monaghan wrote.
The celebration of St. Patrick's Day dates to March 17, 466, on the fifth anniversary of Patrick's death, said Cordery, the ISU history professor. It bore little resemblance to modern festivities.
"It was one of the holiest days on the calendar, excluding Christmas and Easter," Cordery said.
There would have been at least one similarity.
"It was a feast, so alcohol would have been served," the professor said.
The idea that modern Americans would want to celebrate their Irish heritage, or even pretend to have it, is relatively new.
Many Irish came to the United States in the 1840s during the potato famine. Then as now, America was undergoing a spate of nationalism and was less than welcoming to the Irish.
"They were classified as low human beings," said Amahia Mallea, Drake University associate professor of history. "There were caricatures of the Irish being a small, violent and drunken lot — simply low class."
Most Irish were Catholic, which made the strongly Protestant-leaning U.S. leery and sometimes outright hostile to the immigrants.
"Think back to (John F. Kennedy, who was Catholic) getting elected president in 1960," Mallea said. "For many Catholics, that was like President (Barack) Obama's election for African Americans in 2008."
Still, the celebration of St. Patrick's Day in America predates its birth as a nation. The first recorded celebration of St. Patrick's Day was in 1737 in Boston, held by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston to assist Irish immigrants in finding jobs and homes.
The St. Patrick's Day celebrations we know today — with leprechauns, limericks and green beer — started to emerge in the 1920s, driven by the one great unifying force in America: Capitalism.
"A lot of what we think of today when we think of St. Patrick's Day had to do with window displays, selling cards, gifts and floral arrangements," Cordery said.
The commercialization of St. Patrick's Day boomed in post-World War II America.
"The economy improved and other celebrations became widely commercialized, including St. Valentine's Day, Mardi Gras and, into the 1990s, Cinco de Mayo," Mallea said.
Generally, I've no problem with St. Patrick's Day or any of the sundry excuses Americans use to get their drink on, from the Super Bowl to the Fourth of July.
As an amateur historian, it irks me that our culture seldom takes the time to learn the reasons behind traditions. I would like St. Patrick's Day to be something more thoughtful than another "Mmm … beer" moment in America.
It takes little imagination to look at how the devout Catholic Irish were viewed in the middle 19th century and apply that same thinking to how Muslim immigrants are being treated today.
During our conversation, Cordery offered a wonderful idea.
"There would be some value to cultural understanding if we all learned what it was like to be Irish for a day, German for a day, Muslim for a day and so on," he said. "It might engender some understanding for us."
Daniel P. Finney, the Register's Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or email@example.com. Twitter: @newsmanone.
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It is a tradition on St. Patrick's Day, to celebrate in the Windy City with thousands of spectators crowding the banks of the Chicago River to be amazed at the rivers temporary hue of emerald green. (March 17) AP