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Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day

A road and green hills in County Wicklow, Ireland.

County Wicklow, Ireland. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, which means corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and — of course — lots of green. It also means thinking about Irish culture, and how Irish Americans have helped shape the U.S. since its infancy.

St. Patrick’s Day dates back more than a thousand years and is the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. Patrick was kidnapped as a boy and taken to Ireland in slavery; after his escape he returned to the Emerald Isle to spread Christianity among its residents. In about thirty years, he made significant inroads for the Church in Ireland. Legend has it he died on March 17, 461.

Until the 1700s, St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated by the Irish as a day of prayer and feasting. Then, in the late 18th century, Irish-Americans turned St. Paddy’s Day into the day of revelry and parade that we know today. Secular in nature, American St. Patrick’s Day is as much about remembering the legacy of the Irish as it is about honoring their patron saint. Some native Irish have taken up the U.S. style of celebration, as well, though many insist it is purely for the benefit of tourists.

Common emblems of Ireland, including a harp.

Other common emblems of Ireland, including the harp.

One of the best-known symbols of St. Patrick’s Day is the shamrock. Legend has it St. Patrick used this three-leaved plant to illustrate the concept of the Trinity to his Irish converts. Whether or not this story is true, the shamrock itself has been the center of some controversy, as even the Irish can’t agree on what species of plant St. Patrick would have used. Three varieties of clover, one kind of medick, and at least two species of sorrel are on the list of possibilities. All have three leaves and grow well in Ireland’s fields; the truth is probably lost to history.

  • Fact: The four-leaf clover, though often associated with ‘the luck of the Irish,’ is actually an unrelated piece of folklore. Yes, the mutated clover is a symbol of good luck, but it is separate from the shamrock, which is famed for having just three leaves.
  • Fact: Some shamrock plants — those in the Oxalis family — are fatally poisonous to cats and dogs. If you want to keep one in your house, keep it away from your pets.

Celebrate the holiday by attending the 39th DC St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17 from noon to 3pm. The parade will follow Constitution Ave between 7th and 17th Streets NW, and will feature marching bands, dancers, and parade floats. 

You can also learn more about the legacy of the Irish by browsing the Library of Congress’ digital collection. The LOC boasts more than 4,000 online items about Ireland, the Irish, and Irish Americans; enjoy newspaper articles, cartoons, photographs, paintings, sound recordings, and more.

Or, check out the following Trinity resources:

For more articles, try searching “Irish American” in Academic Search Premier. Use this database search tutorial for tips on how.

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