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The real history of St. Patrick's Day traditions

America's more boisterous observance of the holiday originated in pre-colonial America, when Irish immigrants first arrived.

Revelers at the 51st annual Westhampton Beach St.

Revelers at the 51st annual Westhampton Beach St. Patrick's Day Parade on Saturday. Photo Credit: Michael Cusanelli

Every March, countless Long Islanders don their finest green garb and celebrate the St. Patrick’s Day season by attending parades, frequenting speak-easies and sipping their favorite spirits like Guinness.

But what we celebrate as St. Patrick’s Day in the United States is vastly different from the religious holiday originally celebrated in Ireland, where Catholics traditionally enjoyed a quiet dinner with their families in observance of the country’s patron saint. Even the colors and music we typically associate with St. Patrick’s Day are largely Americanized versions of Irish culture.

“In Ireland for years, the pubs were closed, and everyone went to Mass,” said Mike McCormack, a Selden resident who is the national historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the country’s oldest Irish-Catholic fraternal organization. “It was a holy day of obligation for many, many years.”

America’s more boisterous observance of the holiday originated in pre-colonial America, when Irish immigrants first arrived. The first documented celebration, according to McCormack, was in Boston in 1737, when the Charitable Irish Societies of Boston gathered for a celebratory feast.

The first known parade, however, wasn’t documented until 1766 in Manhattan, when New York restaurant owner John Marshall invited Irish regiments from the British army to his annual St. Patrick’s Day banquet. The regiments marched in formation to the dinner celebration, marking the start of the annual parades we know today, McCormack said.

As the years passed, parades got larger and larger as more people sought to represent their heritage, and this tradition eventually made its way back to Ireland, according to Kathy O’Neill of the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago. She said large parades like the ones in Manhattan and other major cities only began in Ireland within the past several decades.

“You’ll start to see parades now in Ireland, more recently, but they really did start here,” she said. “That’s because when people came over as immigrants, they wanted to show their pride. They didn’t want to lose their culture and their heritage, and that was a great way to get out and show you’re still Irish.”

Other St. Patrick’s Day traditions, such as corned beef and cabbage, were entirely American customs, according to McCormack. The dish became a staple for many immigrants who couldn’t afford higher quality cuts of meat, and chose instead to boil cured beef in cabbage water to remove salt and infuse it with flavor.

“It was their one chance to get some meat in their diets because they were so desperately poor,” said McCormack. “It’s an Irish tenement dish.”

Although it is more of an authentic dish, Irish soda bread is not native to Ireland, according to Brian Witt, cultural chair and historian of the Milwaukee Irish Fest. The meal became associated with St. Patrick’s Day because it was a popular item with Irish peasants, many of whom were tenant farmers.

“Bakery bread was unknown to the rural Irish, and even in the best of years, it was a luxury to purchase,” said Witt. When these farmers eventually settled in America, soda bread remained a staple of their diet, along with potatoes.

Even the color green is not traditionally associated with St. Patrick. The first time the color was used in Ireland was in 1798, when a group of Protestants and Catholics banded together to form a group fighting British imperial rule. Although the national color of Ireland is called St. Patrick’s blue, green was eventually adopted in America as the official color of the holiday, according to McCormack.

Despite the many liberties taken by modern St. Patrick’s Day revelers, Kathy O’Neill says she doesn’t mind when Americans celebrate the holiday, so long as they take the time to learn about the true origins of St. Patrick’s Day and why it is such a significant part of Irish culture.

“If everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, I don’t mind,” said O’Neill, the marketing director at the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago. “If you want to come for the beer and stay for the culture, I’m really cool with that.”

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