The Americanization of St. Patrick's Day

You may want to go hunting for leprechauns this St. Patrick's Day, but don't expect to find one at the end of Finian's rainbow, clutching a pot of gold and washing down a plate of corned beef and cabbage with green beer.

And don't expect to find many Irish people doing any of that either. Many of the traditions Americans — even Irish-Americans — believe came over from the auld sod are actually the product of stage stereotypes and Hollywood sentimentality.

"The corned beef and cabbage thing makes me laugh," says Yvonne Ivory, a lecturer at San Diego State University who grew up in Dublin. "Other things annoy me."

Many Irish "traditions" are strictly for tourists, she says. "The myth is if you kiss the Blarney stone you become eloquent. I've never heard of Irish people kissing the Blarney stone."

And: "I've never seen green beer in Ireland."

From Church Day to Carnival

Until very recently, St. Patrick's Day was celebrated not as a holiday marked by parades, parties and beer-drinking, but by attending Mass and honoring the missionary credited with converting Ireland in the fifth century.

"Traditionally in Ireland, the feast of St. Patrick is a celebration of the Christianization of Ireland," says Irish native Ninian Mellamphy, a professor of English at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

Mellamphy — who was born in Kilkenny, grew up in Cork and educated at Cashel in County Tipperary — says he can remember a few, relatively small St. Patrick's Day parades from his youth. But mostly the day was devoted to church and a "quiet celebration of our culture" that might include Irish-language recitations. "There was no sense of the carnival."

The "carnival" really got started in the United States, where homesick Irish immigrants focused on the day as a way to celebrate their origins.

"St. Patrick's Day becomes a day when a lot of different things having to do with being Irish get lumped together," says Chris Cahill, executive director of the Institute for Irish-American Studies at City University of New York's Lehman College.

Celebrating Success in America

During the Irish Famine of 1845-1850, more than 1 million people died of starvation and disease, and hundreds of thousands of others emigrated — many of them packed into "coffin ships." In the United States, Irish immigrants did not meet a warm welcome.

"They had these signs: 'No Irish Need Apply,'" says Jim Farrelly, a professor of English who coordinates the study of Irish films at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

At first the Irish immigrants could only get the jobs no one else would take. But the Irish community grew in the United States, and other immigrant groups followed to take their place at the bottom of the pecking order. And soon, they had reason to celebrate on the day now associated with their Irish heritage.

"As the Irish became economically more secure, as they began to develop political clout, it became a day in which they celebrated their Irishness, and also their success and their American-ness," says Mellamphy.

As the Irish in America became more successful, immigrants from other ethnic groups, who could identify with their experience, joined in their celebration. "So the Ukrainian or someone from South America could join in an Irish parade," says Mellamphy.

Corned Beef and Fake Shamrocks

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