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Irish-at-heart: Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day

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On March 17, across the United States, about 122 million Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. That is 39 percent of the American population. Staggering as that may seem, 35 million people living in the United States claim Irish Ancestry. That’s seven times the population of Ireland. Add on to those figures the countless Irish-at-heart, kiss-me-I’m-Irish wannabes, and you’re sure to find yourself smack in the middle of a moving sea of green somewhere near your hometown. The largest and oldest parade of all time is none other than the Annual New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. You can expect between 150,000 and 250,000 participants to march up Fifth Avenue from 44th Street to 86th Street, while two million spectators line the streets. Now that’s a lot of smiling Irish eyes.

Yet while we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and wherever we celebrate it, I have to admit that I did not know much about the Patron Saint and National Apostle of Ireland that is being honored. St. Patrick was not born in Ireland but was born in Britain during the fifth century. Kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16, St. Patrick was able to escape after six years. Returning later to Ireland as a Christian Missionary, St. Patrick was credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish and consecrating more than 350 Bishops. In the centuries following his death, which is believed to be on March 17, 1461, St. Patrick’s religious impact on Ireland and its people grew throughout the world. In fact, St. Patrick used the shamrock, or three-leaf clover, as a religious symbol. The story behind this little green plant is steeped in heritage and Irish national pride. St. Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the holy trinity.

A deeper look into Ireland’s history of famine, disease, and political unrest reminds us that the Irish were anything but lucky. But “the luck of the Irish” evolved when the Irish remained hopeful and began creating their own luck and opportunities through their positive attitudes, work ethic, and perseverance through some of the most difficult times. As Lady Liberty became the new symbol of freedom to the 4.5 million Irish immigrants arriving at Ellis Island between 1820 and 1930, Irish traditions, customs, and beliefs kept Ireland alive in each of them. Far from their loved ones, heartwarming traditions and religious feasts honoring their Patron Saint of Ireland blossomed into international festivals celebrating Irish culture. With parades, Irish step dancing, corned beef and cabbage, Irish soda bread, music, bagpipes, and a whole lot of green, St. Patrick’s Day became ubiquitous with being Irish no matter what ones heritage is.

In modern-day Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was traditionally a religious occasion. In fact, up until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on March 17. Then in 1995, the Irish government began to showcase Ireland and Irish culture to the rest of the world. Today, about one million people annually take part in Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin, a multi-day celebration featuring parades, concerts, outdoor theater productions, and fireworks shows.

People of all backgrounds celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in many countries far from Ireland. North America is home to the largest productions. Annually Americans exchange about eight million St. Patrick’s Day greeting cards, 83 percent will wear green, 40 pounds of green dye is used to turn the Chicago River green, 100 percent of those celebrating St. Patrick’s Day will be considered Irish. If you choose to skip the festivities this year, you may just find yourself green with envy.

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