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St. Paddy’s holiday of many cultures


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“Maewyn Succat’s Day” just does not sound right.

Instead, we celebrate “St. Patrick’s Day” on March 17 and celebrate the contributions of many different cultures.

Although we assume it is Irish, it is the result of what historians call “cross-cultural exchange.” That is a process of sharing technology and culture between different societies. It is often a byproduct of trade, conquest or immigration.

Maewyn Succat was St. Patrick’s original name. Much of his life is a matter of conjecture. He was actually born in Roman Britain. Pirates took him to Ireland as a slave. He escaped and then returned to Ireland as a missionary.

St. Patrick might have been Maewyn Succat or he might have been Palladius, a bishop sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine I. Many scholars think that the lives of Succat and Palladius merged together to form the basis of the St. Patrick story. Whatever the source, almost one thing is certain: St. Patrick did not cast out the snakes from Ireland.

Like so many of our traditions, modern St. Patrick’s Day is the product of mythology. The day Succat died started as a national day of feasting in the ninth or 10th centuries.

Many people embraced St. Patrick’s Day as an opportunity to eat, drink and be merry during Lent.

Irish soldiers, serving with the British army, started the parade tradition when they marched off to a New York City pub in 1762.

During the 1800s, St. Patrick’s Day was an important way for Irish-Americans to celebrate their heritage. Irish immigrants were often the targets of violence and discrimination.

An entire political party, the Know-Nothings, feared Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Day would not be the same without its culinary traditions. My mother usually put a large pot of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes on the stove to simmer.

But the original Irish dish was probably bacon and cabbage. Irish-Americans likely adopted corned beef, a deli staple, while living near Jewish immigrants. American Indians in Peru and Bolivia were the first to cultivate the potato. Cross-cultural exchange brought corn, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, peanuts, pineapples, beans and avocados to Europe from the Americas. Before 1500, the European diet was pretty bland.

Another St. Patrick’s Day staple, beer, originated in Mesopotamia and Egypt more than 7,000 years ago.

Europeans began imbibing around 5,000 years ago. I do not know who decided to add dye to turn beer green.

Dye does not really improve the flavor of some cheap beers. Ironically, St. Patrick’s color was blue, not green. Wearing green probably started as a sign of solidarity with groups fighting for Irish independence in 1798.

My favorite St. Patrick’s Day treat is McDonald’s Shamrock Shake. A McDonald’s advertising executive invented the shake in 1970. The next time you order one, politely ask them to mix in some chocolate shake with it. It tastes like a thin mint cookie.

Whatever you are drinking on St. Patrick’s Day, lift a glass to the contributions of the Irish immigrants, American Indian farmers, Jewish deli owners and the ancient Egyptians who made it all possible.

Aaron Miller is assistant professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College-Columbus/Franklin.

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