Kiss me, I’m Irish.3/6/2019
Why everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
Benjamin Disraeli, no friend to the Irish, warned about the three types of falsehoods: “lies, damned lies and statistics.” (Mark Twain stole that line). According to the U.S. census, the most famous guardian of the third kind of lies, Iowa’s population of white people has twice as many of German ancestry than of Irish. The numbers are 35.9 percent for Germans and 13.7 percent for Irish. That seems dubious because Irish Iowans are so much more conspicuous about their heritage than German Iowans. Being the opponent of America in two World Wars has probably made German Iowans stay underground, but in this era of DNA analysis, smart money is reassessing the stats.
Of all ethnic groups in America, the Irish intermarried with non-Irish more readily than anyone, certainly more so than Jews and Italians. Chef and restaurateur George Formaro is one of the latest people who ran DNA tests and found to his consternation that he has Irish blood. “Where did that come from? I thought briefly I might be part Jewish, but Irish was a surprise,” he explained.
Indeed, every March 17, it’s been said that all Americans are Irish for a day. That isn’t said about ethnic fairs like CelebrAsian, Hispanic Heritage Festival, Italian American festival, etc. The unofficial motto of St. Patrick’s Day is “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” That plays into a lot of stereotypes about Irish Americans being lascivious, but no one cares.
In fact, St. Patrick’s Day covers most of the Irish American stereotypes, many of which were propagated by Irish writers and film makers. As my granddaughter sees it, “If you learned about Irish Americans from watching TV, movies or reading novels, you’d start believing that we’re all cops, gangsters, priests, poets, bartenders or barmaids, teachers and drunks, all of whom are also incredibly morose, abusive and belligerent.”
Consider the great writers of Ireland. W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Frank McCourt, Samuel Becket, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey — just for starters. The question is, “Where’s the lightness, the humor?” Other than Wilde, who lived a tortured personal life, Irish writers are mostly grim. The most famous Irish ballads — “Oh Danny Boy,” “The Minstrel Boy,” “Johnny I Hardly Knew You” — are lament
So why exactly do so many claim their Irish blood on St. Patrick’s Day? Obviously, it’s a big party, tied with Iowa’s Mardi Gras, spring’s Octoberfest, and New Year’s Eve as the police department’s main nemesis. Of those events, it probably has more resemblances to Mardi Gras, or Carnivale, as it’s called in Europe. That is the day when people impersonate other people, in costume or not. Fueled with considerable alcohol, including the strange combination of beer and food coloring known as green beer, folks try out their Irish personas, if only for a day. In Chicago, they even color their river green.
Green, of course, is the color of success. Stock market indices show winners as green and losers as red. Traffic lights show it’s time to go when the green comes on. Applied to memory, green denotes keeping a thing fresh and alive. In nature, it is the color of new beginnings. To environmentalists, it is all things good.
Wearing green is not the same thing as dressing up in your team’s colors. To the Irish, it was a defiant gesture against the British occupiers. The latter banned the wearing of green after the Irish Rebellion of 1798. That inspired street ballads about wearing green, the most famous by Dion Boucicault. Most versions of that song contrast a call for emigration to America with an urge to stay and remain defiant of the British.
This is the last verse in one of the most modern versions of the “Wearing of the Green.”
“When laws can stop the blades of grass from growin’ as they grow
And when the leaves in summer-time their color dare not show
Then I will change the color too I wear in my caubeen
But till that day, please God, I’ll stick to the Wearin’ o’ the Green.”
St. Patrick himself is probably better known for legends than for anything he actually did. The great myth is that he personally drove snakes out of the country to their death in the Irish Sea, and that he cultivated the shamrock, the official flower of Ireland. The truth is that he was born of Roman parents stationed in Great Britain but was kidnapped into slavery and taken to Ireland for six years before escaping and finding passage back to Britain. Two writings that survived him were his spiritual autobiography “Confesio” and his “Letter to Coroticus,” which was a denouncement of the way that Brits treated Irish Christians. His writings today are praised, even by his critics, for their spiritual intensity and moral faith.
Des Moines taverns rock the green. In this town, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick are a philanthropic group that raises money through hosting a parade and St. Patrick’s 5K & 10K runs, disc golf, ball golf, Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day bike ride, and a bags tournament. This year’s parade, which has a cost of $24,000 and is paid for entirely by fundraising efforts by the Friendly Sons, will begin at noon on March 16, a Saturday. That is a big relief to the employers who often seen a lot of absenteeism on March 18. There will be a queen selected by then, and groups and communities will strut their pride in hopes of winning an award. The biggest of those, “best in parade,” has been dominated by Melrose, “Iowa’s Little Ireland,” for years. However, last year, Georgetown wrestled the award away from Melrose, which held its first ever St. Patrick’s reunion on the same day.
St. Patrick’s Day is, above all, known in America as a celebration of drinking. This represents an unfortunate image that many have of the Irish that’s no truer than the banishment of the snakes. Ireland does have one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in Western Europe. The Irish Health Board claims that 54 percent of Irish engage in dangerous drinking annually compared to a 28 percent average in the rest of Western Europe. Ireland is nowhere close to most East European countries though in heavy drinking. In fact, the top five most drunken nations on Earth, according to Market Watch, are Romania, Russia, Lithuania, Moldova and Belarus.
The alcohol gene
Because Ireland is also known as a nation of bards, the drinking is embraced, sometimes elegantly. Irish journalist John Waters makes it a religious experience: “Drinking in Ireland is not simply a convivial pastime, it is a ritualistic alternative to real life, a spiritual placebo, a fumble for eternity, a longing for heaven, a thirst for return to the embrace of the Almighty.” Irish drinking patterns are, he wrote, “evidence of a deep hole in the Irish psyche which only alcohol can fill.”
Obviously, March 16-17 will be big days for local bars. Some run shuttle busses. Others erect tents to keep their overflow of customers dry. Probably the most Irish of Irish bars in town, Cooney’s, does nothing much differently from any other day of the year. Signs there read “No green beer, ever.” Bar owners have taken measures to make St. Pat’s safer. Most places will offer to call you an Uber, a cab or a friend. Some will pay for your transportation within 5 miles. Last year, West Des Moines police and the Governor’s Safety Council cracked down on St. Pat drivers with highly visible traffic stops enforcing an emphasis on seat belt use and inebriation. Seat belt use reduces likeliness of death in serious accidents by 45 percent. Traffic deaths have decreased in Iowa since a ban of texting while driving was enacted July 1, 2017. Officers can now ticket drivers just for texting. Previously, texting was only a ticketing offense when combined with other infractions.
In Des Moines, St. Patrick’s Day food usually means corned beef and cabbage. More traditional Irish dishes, like colcannon (also celebrated in folk ballads), are rare and rarely ordered when a place tries them out. Basically, colcannon mashes potatoes with shredded kale, onions, heavy cream, and lots of butter. Irish butter, celebrated in Europe, is increasingly more available in Des Moines. Look for Kerrygold at Fresh Thyme and other stores.
Corned beef is a very American food. In Ireland, back when the wearing of the green was forbidden, corned beef was made almost entirely for export. British Parliament made it illegal to export live cattle to Britain in 1663, and salt was considerably cheaper in Ireland because of tax breaks not available in Britain. The average Irish family could not afford to eat corned beef though. Many food historians think that contributed to its popularity with Irish Americans. Here it was not expensive. Smithsonian magazine claims that lamb or bacon is the typical meal of St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland.
Abraham Lincoln was so aware of the popularity of corned beef with Irish voters that he made it the meal of his first inaugural luncheon in March of 1861. Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou encouraged Americans to eat more corned beef and cabbage as a way of stretching food dollars in hard times. They also pushed corned beef hash.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade has grown into a mammoth affair. Because of that, the parade route has stabilized in recent years. Rather than announcing a new route each year, a la RAGBRAI, it’s staged in recent years from 15th and Mulberry to Grand, then down Grand to 8th Street. This makes Exile restaurant and tavern the staging headquarters of the parade. That’s appropriate because Exile celebrates the dream of immigration in America.
Last year’s other awards went to the National Balloon Classic for judges’ choice, to Hubbell Apartment Living for best Irish theme, and to the Craig Clan for best Irish clan. Both Georgetown and Melrose are extremely proud of their Irishness. Melrose, the smallest high school ever to win a state boys basketball championship, claimed 130 people in the last census. The 1937 basketball team, appropriately The Shamrocks, was also the first in Iowa to finish an unbeaten season. Walt O’Connor, who later was an All American at Drake, led that team. The population then was 420, almost all Irish. Nuns taught at the public high school. A billboard on the edge of town today proclaims it “Iowa’s Little Ireland.”
Georgetown, an unincorporated area near Melrose in Monroe County, boasts an historic Catholic church — St. Patrick’s, of course. It was built around the Civil War in Gothic Revival style and renamed St. Patrick’s because the local population became mostly Irish after the war.
Brush up your Irish
How does one say Happy St. Patrick’s Day in the native tongue of Ireland?
“Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit (lah leh PAH-drig SUN-uh gwitch).”
“Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig dhuit!” if you are greeting just one person. This phrase is a slightly more traditional and more religious way to wish an individual person a Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Literally it means “St. Patrick’s Day blessings to you!”
How does one toast? “Sláinte!” has the same effect as toasting “cheers!” in English.
“Éire go Brách!” shows more Irish pride. Literally it means “Ireland forever!”
“Tabhair póg dom, táim Éireannach!” This is the best way to test your Irish luck. Literally it means “Kiss me, I’m Irish!”
To literally testing your Irish luck, just say “Ádh na nÉireannach.” It means “luck to the Irish.” This phrase should be pronounced as Awe nah Nay-ron-okh. ♦