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A great day for the Irish

Molly Acker | Friday, March 10, 2006

Here at Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame we celebrate the Irish all year long. Still, St. Patrick’s Day remains one of the most anticipated holidays on the calendar for many students. Typically, St. Paddy’s Day conjures up notions of shamrocks, green beer, corned beef and cabbage, bagpipes and a little bit of luck. Today, virtually every American city with a sizeable Irish population is preparing for some sort of festivities in honor of Ireland’s patron saint. Typically, this will include a parade, and it will likely be accompanied by traditional music, plenty of Guinness specials at local pubs and hangovers that last well into St. Joseph’s Day.

While America’s St. Patrick’s Day tends to have more in common with a college football tailgate than a religious holiday, people in Ireland still manage to celebrate the holiday with an eye toward its spiritual significance. Across the pond, St. Patrick’s day is a national holiday. Traditionally, it is a day for prayers, spiritual renewal and an examination of faith. Before the first drop of Jameson’s finds its way into a glass, many Irish have already begun their day with a trip to Mass. But make no mistake about it: the Irish have their fun too.

Although we all know people who count down the days to St. Paddy’s Day on their calendars, many people probably don’t know why we choose to remember St. Patrick and why we celebrate his life on March 17th. What is known about Ireland’s patron saint and national apostle comes from his two major works: “Confessio,” his autobiography, and “Epistola,” his denunciation of the British mistreatment of the Irish. Patrick best described himself as a “most humble-minded man, pouring forth a continuous paean of thanks to his Maker for having chosen him as the instrument whereby multitudes who had worshiped idols and unclean things had become the people of God.”

Patrick was born in Scotland in 387 A.D. and was the son of two Romans who were in charge of colonies in Britain. At the age of 14 he was captured in a raiding party and taken to Ireland, where he was enslaved to herd and tend sheep. During his captivity, he turned to God. When Patrick was 20, he managed to escape and return to Britain. He was ordained a priest and later a bishop, and he returned to Ireland to preach the Gospel in 433 A.D. He and his disciples preached Christianity, converted thousands of pagans and built churches all over the country. Kings, their families and entire kingdoms converted to Christianity upon hearing Patrick’s message.

Of course, legend has it that St. Patrick drove all of the snakes out of Ireland. Although many share this story, it is likely that this tale is symbolic of the fact that St. Patrick helped to bring an end to the pagan practice of worshipping serpent symbols. He is also remembered for using the three-leaf clover to explain the Holy Trinity. This story happens to be true, and it marks the origins of the association between the shamrock, himself and the Irish.

One account of Patrick’s life says that he died in Saul, Donqnpatrick, Ireland on March 17, 461 A.D. While I am not sure if the name “Downpatrick” is derived from Patrick being laid to rest in the town, his death is nevertheless the reason that March 17 is designated as his feast day. As patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick has come to be associated with all things Irish – leprechauns and their pots of gold, the color green and the bibulous nature of the people. When immigrants from Ireland settled around the world, they took with them their history and their traditions. This is why so many cities in the United States have large celebrations to honor the Irish and St. Patrick.

In my own home town of Chicago, the celebration spans two days. Traditionally, the city’s downtown St. Patrick’s Day parade falls on the Saturday before the actual holiday (for those of you visiting the Windy City this weekend, that would be tomorrow). Highlights of the day typically include the Chicago River being dyed green, a capacity crowd at nearly every Irish pub on Division Street or in Lincoln Park and even a few Pakistani cab drivers who claim to have come to the United States by way of County Cork (as the old saying goes, “Everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.”).

Practically speaking, Saturday’s parade is merely the undercard for the main event of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities: Sunday’s South Side Irish Parade. While this year’s parade is likely to be as much a celebration of the World Champion White Sox as it is a celebration of St. Patrick and the Irish, the festivities on the South Side bear more of a resemblance to those in Ireland. Most members of this largely Irish Catholic community begin their day by going to Mass at one of the many local parishes. After Mass, the green beer flows like water and the bars along Western Avenue become filled with familiar faces as the sounds of songs such “Danny Boy,” “South Side Irish” and “It’s a Great Day for the Irish” permeate the neighborhood.

Though the “luck of the Irish” was not on our side inasmuch as we can’t be on campus for the big day this year, I’m sure that students will be celebrating on the beaches of Florida, on cruise ships in the Caribbean or in the comfort of their homes. No matter where you find yourself next Friday, say an Irish blessing toast one up to Paddy. Slainte!

Molly Acker is a senior communication studies and humanistic studies double major at Saint Mary’s. She can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer