Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Wearing of the Green

This week marks the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day here in New Brunswick. Celebrations have been ongoing this week and will culminate on Thursday, March 17th. This holiday honors the patron saint of Ireland and is primarily a religious holiday in Ireland. In this short column I will point out a few interesting facts, myths and traditions for St. Patrick’s Day. I hope these thoughts will be educational and give an understanding of Irish heritage.

St. Patrick was born in Wales. At the age of 16 he was captured and sold into slavery and taken to Ireland where he spent his time studying Christianity. After his release and return to Britain he was determined to return to Ireland as a missionary to convert the Irish people to Christianity. With a modest amount of religious education to guide him, Patrick returned to Ireland and successfully converted the Irish people. It is felt that St Patrick's ridding Ireland of snakes is a metaphor for ridding the island of Paganism. Although his true original color is the very distinct St. Patrick’s blue, over time it has changed to green, reflecting the hundreds of greens in the Irish landscape. This is also symbolic of the Shamrock which represents the holy trinity and was a tool for the young missionary’s way of teaching Christianity. Green has since been used for military uniforms and other national symbols to further ingrain it into Irish society. Falling within Lent, this celebration was a welcome one-day reprieve from the abstinence of alcohol and has been celebrated with great enthusiasm since the 18th Century.

In Ireland, the traditional food eaten on this day would be Irish stew, a very simple stew originally made of mutton, onions, potatoes and parsley. Over the years carrots, turnips and stout have been added to the recipe. A great Irish stew is a fantastic meal and is often complemented with Irish Soda Bread. Here is a wonderful recipe for Irish Soda Bread. This recipe makes a very moist and lovely loaf of Irish bread for St Patrick's Day.

Pre heat oven to 350 degrees
Grease and flour a loaf pan (yes, what you'd use for meat loaf)
Soak 1 C raisins in warm water to plump
3 C all purpose flour
1/2 C sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking POWDER
1 egg
2 T vegetable oil
1 T sour cream
2 C buttermilk
Add the raisins
Bake for 50 minutes, check with tooth pick or straw and continue baking another few
minutes if needed.

In Canada and the US, the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal is usually corned beef and cabbage. Beef in Ireland was far more expensive than lamb. Therefore lamb was used (and sparingly I might add). When the tax collector came by and could smell meat cooking, your tax bill might well go up, so onions covered the meat nicely in the pot. When the thousands Irish immigrants settled in Canada and in New York especially, during the potato famine of the 1840’s (not a myth), they lived in close proximity to their Jewish neighbors. It was the Jews who introduced the Irish to Corned Beef. The brisket cut was an inexpensive cut and the corning process helped to preserve it. And, if the truth be told, the word ‘corning’ refers to the pieces of salt used for curing which were about the size of corn kernels. This main course is served with potatoes, cooked cabbage and other root vegetables which would have been stored throughout the cold winter months.

For those of you curious about cabbage (which, frankly is an acquired taste – I don’t care what anyone says), it was introduced to the British Isles by the Celts, who brought it from Asia during the 6th Century B.C. And, while we’re at it, potatoes were brought from South America to Europe in 1536.

As to green beer, St. Patrick’s Day parades and other celebrations of this, the first of real springtime causes for jubilation, we can find most of the origins in New York City. I remember when living and working in that fair city that March 17th was essentially a day off. It was a time to think about leprechauns, rainbows and pots of gold. Lucky thing, I suppose.

Whether you enjoy collecting four-leaf clovers, expounding about the gift of gab brought to you by kissing the Blarney Stone (yes, I must confess to having kissed it myself), or enjoying a good pint of Irish beer, St. Patrick’s Day has a wonderfully unifying force which serves also to lighten one’s spirits if only for a day (or a full week if you live in Saint John). We all appreciate the customs of a once foreign land and its richly diverse heritage. We take a moment to think of the struggles of many people over the centuries and realize how lucky we are to come from such strong stock. Our resilience is echoed in the respect we have for our ancestors, wherever they may come from, and for people from all over the world who make up the fabric of the society in which we live. And to think that it all begins and ends with respect.