17 Mar

Ever since it was brought to the United States somewhere around 1737, St Patricks Day has become a hybrid holiday, less about the Saint and more about the day .

St Patricks Day was a day more connected to faith, more of the 17th century holy day Irish Catholics observed with church in the morning and a feast in the afternoon. Church mixed with drinking and dancing, a dose of blarney, bacon and whiskey topped off with shamrocks. If one was lucky, they found a four leaf clover. If they were luckier, they found the Pot O’ Gold at the end of the rainbow. St. Patricks Day marked the start of the potato planting season. But as the immigrant Irish community began to melt into America, St Patricks Day began changed from the more Catholic celebration.

St. Patrick’s Day always had a theme- the season of Lent – Selection Sunday. Parade organizers over the decades, unhappy with the theme of ‘tradition,’ began to pick themes reflecting the New World. New York City designed its St Patricks Day  parade so it wended its way down New York City’s Fifth Avenue past St. Patrick’s Cathedral where Mass is held. Organizers of the Nation’s Capitol’s St Patricks’ Day parade decided the DC 2013 parade needed a better theme than ‘tradition’ so Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was invited to serve as Grand Marshall. The parade themed, “Celebrating Service to the Stars and Stripes”, www.dcpastparade.com, would wend its way up Constitution Avenue between 7th and 17th SW Times. The DC parade has changed from homegrown and homespun. Seats used to be free. Now, grandstand seats can be bought at a cost of $15 each.

The St Patricks Day Parade tradition began in New York City in 1762. Irish soldiers wanted the New York Irish immigrants to join with them in the British army. So the Irish soldiers paraded up and down hoping the immigrants would fall in to the parade and join with them in battle. The pomp and circumstance eventually became an annual event with its first official St Patricks Day parade starting in Boston. That was then. The year was 1737.

This is now.

St Patricks Day is an American celebration. Everyone becomes Irish, putting on the Green. Store windows are filled with images commercialization makes integral to the day- dealie boppers, green T’s, leprechaun eyeglasses to spray painted hair. Bars put rows of porto potties outside their doors to accommodate the revelers that go “irish” for the night and day. DC hosted their first Limousine Leprechaun Scavenger Hunt and Race challengers twisted and turned. There always seems to be new ways to spread the green on this day that used to be thought of in synch with corned beef and cabbage and green beer to slog it down with.

Few New Yorkers, even tourists, make the trek down to Battery Park. A memorial sits there, close to the ferry taking boatloads of tourists to the grand Lady who greeted the Irish immigrant when they came to the New World looking for work. The Statue of Liberty cannot see the testament to the men and women who came then worked to build up America including the White House in DC. The laborers left their masons mark on stones they embedded to build up America’s symbol of independence- home to Presidents- some Irish- some claiming to be. Along with the claim, comes the precious coveted Irish vote.

There is little public memory of Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840’s, Ireland’s darkest chapter. Few bar drinks start with a moment of silence, a pause to recall why Irish brave men and women left homes many never got a chance to go back and see, a history people sharing in the day should not be allowed to forget. The world acknowledges, with frequency, famines around the world. Memory of the Great Famine is disappearing. The potato blight wont let the Irish forget. The blight used to start its attack on the leaves of the potato plant. The plant was staple to the Irish poors’ diet. Crops failed. Irish died, millions, from starvation and disease. The years- 1845 and 1846. Poor, with no money to bury dead, interred their loved ones behind walls until coffin money was made. Other fled to North America. Some fled to Britian.

Now, the blight starts its attack on the stem of the plant. Potato, third popular to cereal and rice, is a staple food, at times a meal in itself- potato soup, tater’s n’ bacon, and so on. Genetic engineering by a Dutch University, breeding Irish potatoes with wild potatoes found in Mexico and Argentina, is not accepted by Irish faithful fighting to uphold their artisan way of tradition, believing once genetic engineering takes hold, there will be no turning back to the old ways of traditional farming. The University plans to share the potato license to avoid a monopoly over the Genetically Modified spud.

The fungus that devastates potato yields, still haunts the Irish homeland, devastating crops in a day. Modern day farmers work at eradicating this fungus. Their work is not respected. Ireland is a faith country. The disease is a 200 year old disease modern day science is attempting to adress. Potatoes can be changed- yes, maybe. People move forward. Loved ones tragedy will not be forgot.

On this St. Patricks Day, toast the Irish that were here when America was new, the Irish masons whose artistry is written on walls all over the Nation’s Capitol and inside, too… Over the miles and across the isles, think green, think homeland, think history, think heart…. Aye…


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