The woman in front of me at the Dollar Tree checkout has a cart filled with boxed cake mix. “I’m a teacher,” she tells me, pointing to the pile of Duncan Hines Super Moist White she’s buying. She holds up a little red box of food coloring. “St. Patty’s Day is coming, and I have to make green cupcakes!”
She goes on to explain that she hates having to buy two whole boxes of food coloring. “I only need the green,” she whispers. I want to say to her, “You can mix the yellow and blue together.” I want to remind her, “This is a dollar store. That extra box of dye is only costing you a dollar.” But then I think: No. Mansplaining. Better not. So I just smile and say, “Green cupcakes sound delicious.”
I wonder if the Duncan Hines woman will teach her class about St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, or whether they’ll just eat the cupcakes. Maybe they’ll be wearing green socks or green T-shirts. Probably they’ll cut shamrocks out of green construction paper.
When I get home, I call my friend Patrick McAllister, a second-generation Irish American, and ask him why people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not sure, I tell him, what the holiday is about.
“Don’t ask me,” Patrick says. “I should know about this stuff, because I’m Irish and the guy is my namesake. But alls I know is green beer and green T-shirts on March 17.”
I hang up and call Caroline Woodiel, the manager of McClelland Library at the Irish Cultural Center. Caroline is part Irish, has an undergrad degree in history, and is a librarian, so she’s happy to talk to me about St. Patrick’s Day. She doesn’t laugh when I confess I don’t actually know what St. Patrick’s Day is.
“I suppose,” I tell her, “that March 17 commemorates St. Patrick’s birthday.”
Nope. “It’s his death date,” she gently corrects me. “In the fifth century, when St. Patrick was alive, death dates were marked as important by the early Christian church. A death date was like a birthday, only better, because instead of presents you wound up in heaven.”
The patron saint of Ireland was a fifth-century Romano-British citizen, Caroline explains. “If he did a 23andMe DNA test, his ancestry would be Welsh. As a teenager, Patrick was brought to Ireland from Britain as a slave. After having numerous visions, he became a priest.”
The celebration of his death has evolved over time, Caroline says, and depends on where you are and who you are. In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is less about religion and partying and more about diplomatic outreach. “Government ministers travel the world during that week to discuss political issues and issues of peace.”
Co-opting St. Patrick’s Day for political purposes isn’t new. In 1780, looking to raise morale, George Washington declared March 17 a holiday for the Continental army because a bunch of his troops were Irish.
“For a lot of people in the U.S., the meaning of the holiday can be fluid,” Caroline says. “Really, it’s a holy day, a celebration of Irish identity, and an acknowledgment of a real individual. A lot of that has gotten lost over the centuries.”
I remember — and remember hating — the grade-school “Let’s wear green for St. Patrick’s Day!” thing. Where, I asked Caroline, did that come from?
“Green has had a political meaning in Ireland for a long time,” she says. “In the U.S., it’s become synonymous with Irish identity. And because we’re the U.S., the thinking seems to be that if a little green is good, a lot of green is better.”
And what, I ask Caroline with some trepidation, about green beer? “In the U.S., people like to mark holidays by drinking,” she reminds me. “So why not make the beer green? And while you’re at it, make the Empire State Building green, and dye the river green, too. If you watch Twitter on St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a whole feed of monuments that have been turned green for the day, all over the world.”
Ordering green beer is okay, Caroline tells me. But it is absolutely not okay to go into a bar and ask for an Irish Car Bomb, a cocktail made with stout, Irish whiskey, and Baileys.
“It’s culturally insensitive,” she insists, “given the violent history of the Irish. And, you know. Car bombs.”
I hang up with Caroline and call Mary Moriarty. She’s the treasurer and faire chairperson of the St. Patrick’s Day parade committee, and the former operations manager at the Irish Cultural Center. I figure Mary, who says these days she “organizes the weddings and helps bang together the events at the Center,” ought to know why I don’t know more about St. Patrick’s Day.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says. “I grew up in New York, where we had the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parade. Even if you weren’t Irish, you knew what was being celebrated, and why. But you grew up in Phoenix, and no one was really doing much about this holiday back then.”
Celebrating St. Patty’s in Phoenix has changed, thanks to people like Mary. “We’ve been doing a parade down Central Avenue and a faire for 36 years now,” she says proudly. “And make sure you spell faire with an E on the end. It’s Irish.”
I promise Mary I will, then ask her how much green beer they sell at the faire. “None,” she says. “No green beer. Never at our event. We have music and dancing and craft beer. But the green beer thing got started as a marketing tool in one of the big cities. We’re real Irish, and real Irish don’t do green beer.”
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I want to be able to use the phrase “Irish iconography,” so I tell Mary I figure that the whole green thing is because of the shamrock.
“Sort of,” she says. “St. Patrick did use the shamrock, which grows everywhere in Ireland, to explain the holy trinity to people he was trying to convert to Catholicism. You know, the whole three-persons-one-God thing worked well with three leaves and one stem. It worked so well, and he converted so many people, after he died they canonized him.”
Anyway, Mary tells me, the official color of Ireland isn’t green. “It’s blue. But, hey. If green is what the world wants to use to celebrate the Irish, let’s go with it. At least they’re celebrating the Irish. Green is fine.
“But not,” she concludes, “in our beer.”