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Sun., Apr. 26
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A world of Irish traditions

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Much of the green you see popping up everywhere has nothing to do with the vernal equinox, which will occur in three days.

It is very comforting to realize that spring is just around the corner.

I speak for more than a few people in declaring that winter has enjoyed more than its fair share of the spotlight.

The green I’m thinking of, however, is not the budding plant life that begins blooming in warmer weather.

It’s the emerald green of the Emerald Isle, sported every year around St. Patrick’s Day.

Growing up in a typical Chicago Irish household, St. Patrick’s Day was for me and my family both a religious holiday and an ethnic celebration.

In commemorating the patron saint of our ancestral homeland, we joined countless others in lauding all things Irish.

But it’s interesting to note how many traditions about St. Patrick’s Day in particular and Irish life in general are not really Irish at all or at least Irish in the sense that we traditionally conceive them in our minds and hearts.

In many ways, St. Patrick’s Day is a tribute to cultural diversity.

Take our beloved patron saint, Patrick.

You wouldn’t know it by listening to virtually anyone of Irish ancestry, but Patrick wasn’t at all Irish.

He was born somewhere in Roman-controlled Great Britain, some believe in either Scotland or Wales.

He was captured by Irish bandits and forced into slavery before escaping and returning to Great Britain.

He then became a missionary and went back to Ireland to convert the Celtic pagans. Perhaps the Scots or Welsh should be the ones whooping it up on St. Patrick’s Day!

It’s ironic, then, that the British were the ones who gave us our Roman Catholic identity and then worked so ruthlessly to strip it away.

The suffering visited upon numerous Irish people during centuries of oppression is indeed sobering.

But through that difficult process, the Irish also picked up the language we would come to speak and the system of governance we would employ.

And there’s no doubt that Irish people became masters at both the English language and electoral politics.

No fewer than four Irish citizens won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and some of America’s major cities were built largely as a result of Irish politics.

But even in the area of literature there is some diversity.

Many of Ireland most well-known writers were not Catholics but rather Protestants.

Examples include Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, William Butler Yates and Samuel Beckett.

Of the four Irishmen who won the Nobel Prize for Literature — Beckett, Shaw, Yates and Seamus Heaney — only Heaney was raised as a Catholic.

This is significant because despite their Protestant backgrounds, many Anglo-Irish writers were fiercely nationalistic.

They supported Irish independence from British rule while retaining their Anglo-rooted culture.

Have you ever watched a St. Patrick’s Day parade with all those bagpipers?

Funny, the legendary instrument used in such bands is the Highland bagpipe, which comes from Scotland.

The kilts are a big giveaway.

It’s not that the Irish don’t have their own version of the bagpipe, but users must be sitting to use it.

This really wouldn’t work well in a marching band.

Perhaps the best example of St. Patrick’s Day diversity is that staple of Irish food, corned beef and cabbage.

While you can’t leave an Irish-themed party in the United States without being offered plenty of corned beef, you won’t find such a dish being served on the Emerald Isle.

The tradition began when Irish immigrants in New York City had to find a replacement for their beloved Irish bacon.

This is a thick, dark cut of bacon that is a favorite at breakfast.

While it’s a heart attack waiting to happen, it is delicious.

But Irish immigrants couldn’t find Irish bacon here in the states, so they needed something similar.

And immigrants in New York City found it in Jewish delis: corned beef.

So in wishing each other a happy St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow, you might want to slip in a “Mazel tov!” or “God save the queen!” It will make the “Irish” eyes of our patron saint smile.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to

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