In the U.S. and abroad, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is something that happens in public. Maybe in bars and/or restaurants. Maybe starting early in the morning. Maybe going deep into the night. But always with other people, food, and drink.
The “other people” element, the keystone to it all, will be a challenge this St. Paddy’s Day.
As you know, COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, has begun to spread. It has closed restaurants and bars from Phoenix to New York, Europe to China. In order to “flatten the curve” and slow the transmission of the virus, people have been urged by many experts to stay home.
This St. Patrick’s Day, going to bars is out if you want to keep extra safe. Lingering at restaurants is, too, though you can still get takeout or delivery. Parades and food festivals have been canceled. Even Ireland has shuttered its pubs in a mass closure that will run through St. Patrick’s Day.
And so in the U.S. — where there are seven Irish-Americans for every Irish person in Ireland, and where everyone is Irish on March 17 anyway — how can we celebrate in 2020?
In these days, it might seem flippant or cold to consider how to best celebrate a holiday. But I would disagree. I would say that the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day — a holiday with origins in a resilient, long-subjugated country, a day of triumph and community and the joy of living — is actually very well suited to the moment. Celebrating can be about spiritually resisting the virus, solidarity, keeping tradition, and milking small joy where you can.
So how to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the age of the coronavirus?
You can drink an Irish drink, maybe a beer, maybe a cider. You can sip an Irish tea, or an Irish coffee. You can take a cold draught of buttermilk, which, I once read, some laborers in Ireland’s peat bogs once kept cool while they worked, for cold swigs when they broke from cutting. You can take these drinks with whatever home community you’re keeping these days of isolation — with parents, siblings, kids, spouse, select friends, even the dog.
While at home, you can read some Irish writing. For its size, Ireland has given the world a trove of great writers. Knock down a few lines of W.B. Yeats or Seamus Heaney. In a twist of Irish luck, you can pretty easily find all of James Joyce’s short stories from Dubliners online (in the public domain). Together, they paint a bawdy map of Dublin a century ago and include heady old Irish slang, like the word “peloothered.”
You can stream Irish music, give one of those snappy Irish toasts, take a deep dive into Irish history (Celtic migration from the continent, the Roman period, the Viking raids, the druids), read about St. Patrick (he was once a slave), or learn about the parallels of the Irish-American immigrant struggle to the headlines of today.
Another great way to celebrate is to cook Irish food. Yes, Irish food. Hear me out.
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Ireland has an unearned reputation for bland food. This stems partly from Ireland’s colonization by England for hundreds of years, which saw the richest agricultural products of a land so green and fertile it’s called the Emerald Isle eaten elsewhere. Irish cuisine is founded on high-quality ingredients from the land and sea prepared minimally: lamb, butter, fish, shellfish, offal, jams and preserves, bread, and potatoes. If you’ve visited Ireland, you may have had a fried fish, bread, or curry that has opened your eyes like gates.
Given where we are on St. Patrick’s Day 2020 (one answer: home), we should consider celebrating by cooking Irish food with the people in your home circle.
There’s more to Irish cuisine than soda bread (which can be great) and corned beef and cabbage (which is actually more Irish-American). Google a recipe for boxty, an Irish potato cake you might be able to make with what’s already in your pantry. Dig up a recipe for lamb stew, which often takes six or fewer ingredients. There are recipes for Irish tarts, scones, cakes, puddings, pies, and all kinds of surprising dishes that require just a few widely available ingredients. (And there are also, if you’re so inclined, meals like offal in whisky cream sauce.)
Drinking and cooking Irish specialties with a small, close crowd may kindle the same triumph, warmth, and community you may have felt on St. Patrick’s Days past. But the past is ancient history, and we’re locked in a very strange present, one that will feel a little less strange if we can maintain traditions in small new ways and snatch joy where we can.