Editor’s note: Brien is a well-traveled Houstonian and Army Combat Veteran with an extremely wide range of talents and interests including the NFL (Packers), Irish History, and writing. Follow him on twitter @ODonalsVanguard
By BRIEN O’DONAL
Let me just say, I love being Irish! I grew up hearing stories, listening to music and generally absorbing all I could about my heritage. I’ve spent a good part of my adult life reading as much literature and history as I can, all while driving my friends crazy with Irish music. The entryway at my house is adorned with a family coat of arms and an Irish Blessing. My unborn child hears Irish music pumped through headphones while still in the womb. So yeah, I really love it. With that in mind, I wanted to let you in on a little bit of an Irish tradition; the real St. Patrick’s Day. Not a day of getting wasted at a bar but a day of family, friends, and religious reflection. Hopefully you will celebrate like I do; a feast with friends followed by games and a few beers. Nothing like what you see presented in the news.
A bit of my story: my family arrived in America in 1887, settling in Aroostook County Maine; which is as far North East as you can go in the U.S. I spent a lot of my youthful vacations on my Grandparent’s farm in the town of Caribou. My friends make fun of me because I picked potatoes and of course it’s a stereotypical Irish thing to do. The great part about my upbringing is how I look at St. Patrick’s Day. There is so much more to it than just getting wasted on green beer and yelling “Kiss me I’m Irish!” It’s a religious holiday meant to be spent with family and friends. At my house it’s usually a family dinner just to get together and celebrate being Irish. Luckily this year the holiday is on a Friday so we can cut loose afterward. There will be drinking involved, but nothing like the parties found at the local pubs. I won’t deny that when I was in my 20’s I spent a few St. Patrick’s Days drinking my face off, but I was the guy who requested traditional music on the jukebox and tried to give everyone history lessons.
The celebration of all things Irish didn’t start out being the party it is now. It was a slow evolution of heritage, acceptance, and political pandering. Irish immigrants have been coming to the U.S. long before the country was founded, escaping political oppression and seeking money to send to their families back home. It wasn’t until the height of Irish immigration in the 19th century that these celebrations began expanding beyond military parades of Irish soldiers into what we see today. Irish communities had grown to tremendous size and while they still celebrated with church mass and banquets (the population was largely Catholic) the parades and large scale celebrations became a huge source of pride. It also helped win votes for politicians who could use the opportunity to shake hands with the Irish who flooded the streets. At the time, that was a huge voting block to court.
Over the last century or so there has been a major shift in how the Irish are viewed in American society. They were once hated immigrants because of their sheer numbers, their language, and being Catholic but now are just a normal part of the melting pot (entire scholarly works are devoted to that subject). As years went on more and more major cities began holding parades and celebrations and everyone who could do so began finding ways to capitalize on the swarms of people ready to celebrate. In the 1960’s Irish culture was finding its way into American households through the rise of Irish folk music and the large numbers of Irish American celebrities in movies and television. This change in how Irish Americans were viewed opened the door for commercializing the largest day of celebration among them.
Start with this; the idea of drinking alcohol on this day actually has religious ties. Because St. Patrick’s Feast Day falls during the Lent Cycle of the Catholic Church they would normally be prohibited from consuming drinks. However, an exception is made. Traditionally, this is meant to be a drink or two at the feast. Over time, drinking has come to symbolize most of what the holiday is about for the non-religious and non-Irish. The promotion of green beer and large block parties has turned a religious day of cultural celebration in to seas of green clothing and binge drinking. While those celebrations are fun and sometimes forgotten I’ve found that my favorite celebrations are those with just my family and friends in a less crowded environment.
St. Patrick’s Day isn’t until Friday so there’s still time for everyone to celebrate in a more traditional Irish way. If you’re the religious type you might be able to attend mass at your local Catholic Church. My wife and I are making dinner for our friends and will spend the rest of the night playing games and enjoying our favorite beers and whiskeys (mine will all be Irish, of course). Don’t get too caught up with having corned beef and cabbage, it’s a uniquely American thing but not a requirement. All that’s important is that you celebrate with the people you care about and take time to appreciate Irish Culture, not just get drunk and wear green.