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

As they tried to remember their native land, Irish-Americans focused on certain aspects of the culture and created new ones. For instance, Irish cuisine included cabbage, but the meat served with it was more likely to be bacon, or perhaps ham or lamb. Corned beef just happened to be a cheaper alternative in U.S. cities.

"Corned beef came in New York and Boston," says Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, a professor of music and professor of Irish studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "It was considered to be the poorest part of the animal."

Another symbol of importance to the Irish is the shamrock, but Americans often confuse the three-leaf shamrock plant with a four-leaf clover, says Ivory.

"People have made fake shamrocks," she says.

According to legend, St. Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. But many seem to think the symbol should be the four-leaf clover. "Clover seems to convey that the Irish are lucky," she says, but the four leaves just don't jibe with the story. "People don't even know why the shamrock was important in the first place."

Despite the popular legend, St. Patrick didn't really drive the snakes out of Ireland, for the simple reason that Ireland never had any.

"It's an island, for God's sake! They are often known not to have a snake population," says Farrelly. "I think they were talking about the druids. St. Patrick drove the druids and the old religion out of Ireland."

Don’t Mess With the Fairy World

The leprechaun is also an oft-touted figure in the folklore of ancient Ireland, but the mischievous and often ornery cobbler of the fairy world does not bear much resemblance to the cherubic little man in green who adorns St. Patrick's Day decorations today.

"That's part of the theatrical stage tradition," says Ó hAllmhuráin.

However, he says, even into the 20th century, there was a great awareness of the folklore surrounding the sí óg — the little people — especially in the west of Ireland.

"In the Irish language tradition, the Gaelic tradition, you find the fairy world or the underworld, which is populated by fairies," says Ó hAllmhuráin. "There is a tremendous amount of respect for these people. … We didn't mess with them. If you messed with them, there was retribution."

The fairies were said to steal male children, and little boys were often dressed in petticoats to trick these supernatural kidnappers.

The Stage Irishman

Nevertheless, Ó hAllmhuráin says, the American view of the leprechaun owes much to the English stage, where the Irishman was once a stock farcical figure.

"The American theater has its antecedents in the British stage, and the stereotypes of the stage Irishman crossed the Atlantic," he says. "In time they became part of the minstrel shows, and eventually vaudeville, and eventually good old Hollywood."

Ivory finds the stage Irishman stereotype particularly infuriating. "The drunken Irishman drives me insane."

Irishmen were often portrayed in cartoons and parodies as being "quite a simian type of character," adds Ó hAllmhuráin.

He says Irish-Americans seized on such stereotypical images and "used them to their own benefit."

"They developed the ability to laugh at themselves," he says.

Eventually, a more sentimental vision — Bing Crosby as in Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man — emerged on film. And homesick Irish-Americans lapped up songs that came not from old Dublin town, but Tin Pan Alley.

Now, many Irish-Americans think these American-written songs are traditional Irish music. Ó hAllmhuráin, a fourth-generation concertina player specializing in Irish traditional music, remembers how the audience reacted when he played his first American gig. "These old ladies were disappointed because we didn't play 'Danny Boy' or 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.'"

"'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,' singing sentimental songs, that's really associated with the people of the diaspora," says Mellamphy, using the term for the mass emigration of Irish that began during the famine.

Carrying a New Culture to the Old Country

Now a sort of backward diaspora is happening: The Irish-American customs are beginning to emerge in the old country, especially when it comes to St. Patrick's Day celebrations.

"One thing that's ironic to me is that the Irish celebration has become more Americanized," says Mary C. Kelly, a history professor at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire.

"It used to be a very church-focused event," says Kelly, who grew up in County Mayo. "In the last 10 years, it has become much more commercialized and Americanized."

A portion of this change may be due to an eagerness to lure in tourists, she says, but "the trouble is the weather is not usually that good."

Ivory doesn't see Dublin's St. Patrick's Day festival — now a three-day event — as being aimed at tourists. She believes Irish people are simply enjoying the economic boom their country has been experiencing.

"It's a reflection of the fact that the Irish have become very wealthy in the past decade," she says.

Kelly also attributes much of the change to Irish who had tried their luck abroad but are now returning as their homeland prospers. And she points to the influence of Irish-Americans who come seeking their roots.

"Folks who have lived here [in the United States]. Done well and prospered, have transported a lot of that back there," says Kelly. "Some would be aware that they're bringing what you might even call a new culture back there. Others wouldn't, they would see it as their own personal interpretation."

An Irish Renaissance

Irish-American culture has taken on a life of its own, and that's a good thing, says Cahill. If customs like corned beef and cabbage aren't really strictly Irish, "Who cares? … Here, it's what was available."

He believes that descendants of Irish immigrants have managed to hold on to a great deal of their Celtic legacy.

"It seems to me that the Irish have very fully assimilated into American life without throwing away their ethnic heritage," says Cahill.

With the popularity of Riverdance and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, "there's been an upsurge of interest in things Irish," says Cahill — even if they are really more things Irish-American.

Farrelly believes the commercialization of Irish images and sentimental songs like "Toora Loora Looral" and "My Wild Irish Rose" are actually a sign of the durability of the Irish culture. "The whole thing is a testament that the Irish spirit will survive anything," he says.

"Irish-Americans sometimes get a tough time, but these are valid traditions," adds Ó hAllmhuráin.

Nevertheless, he hopes Irish-Americans — and there are some 40 million people in North America who claim Irish ancestry — will continue their quest to learn more about their original heritage. "For far too long, Irish-Americans were just content to be educated by Hollywood or Tin Pan Alley."

He says there's a need for more Irish studies centers, and also for the study of other ethnic groups that have brought their cultures to the United States.

"Celebrate diversity in the full sense of the term," he says. "All America needs to be joyous and celebrate its cultures, rather than just be content in stereotypes for one day a year" — such as St. Patrick's Day, Columbus Day or Cinco de Mayo.

On the other hand, if you want to use St. Patrick's Day as a starting point to get acquainted with Irish culture, you're entirely welcome.

"After all," says Ó hAllmhuráin, "the Irish don't have a monopoly on their own culture. It's there for everyone to share."