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How St. Patrick’s Day Was Made in America

March 12, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

St. Patrick may be the patron saint of Ireland, but many St. Patrick’s Day traditions were born in the United States.

Every March 17, the

After Irish Catholics flooded into the country in the decade following the failure of Ireland’s potato crop in 1845, they clung to their Irish identities and took to the streets in St. Patrick’s Day parades to show strength in numbers as a political retort to nativist “Know-Nothings.”

“Many who were forced to leave Ireland during the Great Hunger brought a lot of memories, but they didn’t have their country, so it was a celebration of being Irish,” says Mike McCormack, national historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians. “But there was also a bit of defiance because of the bigotry by the Know-Nothings against them.”

McCormack says attitudes toward the Irish began to soften after tens of thousands of them served in the Civil War. “They went out as second-class citizens but came back as heroes,” he says. As the Irish slowly assimilated into American culture, those without Celtic blood began to join in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

The meal that became a St. Patrick’s Day staple across the country—corned beef and cabbage—was also an American innovation. While ham and cabbage was eaten in Ireland, corned beef proved a cheaper substitute for impoverished immigrants. McCormack says corned beef became a staple of Irish-Americans living in the slums of lower Manhattan who purchased leftover provisions from ships returning from the tea trade in China.

PHOTOS: Shocking Conditions of Tenement Slums in Late 1800s

“When ships came into South Street Seaport, many women would run down to the port hoping there was leftover salted beef they could get from the ship’s cook for a penny a pound,” McCormack says. “It was the cheapest meat they could find.” The Irish would boil the beef three times—the last time with cabbage—to remove some of the brine.

A St. Patricks day postcard, circa 1850.

While St. Patrick’s Day evolved in the 20th century into a party day for Americans of all ethnicities, the celebration in Ireland remained solemn. The Connaught Telegraph reported of Ireland’s commemorations on March 17, 1952: “St. Patrick’s Day was very much like any other day, only duller.” For decades, Irish laws prohibited pubs from opening on holy days such as March 17. Until 1961, the …read more


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