The Luck O’ the Chirish

The Chicago River is dyed green in honor of St. Patrick's Day. This is one of many Chirish traditions./Photo by Mary Kroeck

The Chicago River is dyed green in honor of St. Patrick's Day. This is one of many Chirish traditions./Photo by Mary Kroeck

Courtney Munson, Writer

It’s that extremely green time of year again, when our beer, river and clothes are decked out in the symbolic color of Ireland. The raucous drinking spectacular we see on the streets of Chicago today is very different than the first real celebrations of this religious holiday.

Some people argue that the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago is the appropriation of a garish caricature of Irish culture. This caricature is based on the idea of the Irish as a bunch of people who drink and fight on every occasion. On the other side of the argument are those who think it is a part of Chicago’s heritage, paying homage to the Irish immigrants who so greatly contributed to the building of Chicago.

As a person of  Irish descent and a Chicagoan, I have always enjoyed celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. I was raised to believe in some Irish customs, but also felt the sting of oppression when my British grandmother, who grew up in London during World War II, showed constant, obvious disdain for my Irish mother and her heritage.

The historical facts of St. Patrick’s Day show a different narrative than the one many believe as children. Catholic Online reports the color associated with St. Patrick was originally light blue. The color was eventually changed through time to be associated with green since it is more widely associated with Ireland. The light blue color can be found in ancient Irish flags, including the one bore by rebels in the Easter Uprising.  

Catholic Online also mentions that St. Patrick himself wasn’t Irish. It is debated by scholars as to whether he is specifically Welsh or Scottish, but he was kidnapped at the age of 16 by an Irish man to be a slave. St. Patrick, originally named Maewyn Succat, converted to Christianity while in captivity. Following his escape Succat studied to become a priest in France.

Upon returning to Ireland St. Patrick began his work of building schools, churches, and spreading the word of God. He continued his work for an estimated 40 years, converting most of Ireland from Paganism to Christianity.

The story we most commonly hear of St. Patrick driving the serpents from Ireland is believed to be an allegorical tale. Serpents, which are portrayed as symbols of evil in the Christian belief system, are believed to represent the Paganism found in Ireland at that time. National Geographic further refuted that story as there have never been fossils found of snakes in Ireland, especially during the age of St. Patrick, according to Nigel Monaghan of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

His death, through historical records, is estimated to have been on Mar. 17, 461 AD. Since then, until recent history, the Irish have celebrated the holiday by attending church in the morning and having a family meal in the evening.

According to the History Channel, the first St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. on Mar. 17, 1762 in New York and, with the rise of Irish immigration, eventually became a widespread holiday.

Many of the laborers who completed the Lake Michigan and Illinois River Canal were Irish immigrants who contributed to Chicago becoming the economic hub it is today, according to WTTW. In fact, a lot of Chicago’s history is deeply intertwined with the Irish. Since the Irish spoke English, they had an advantage over other immigrants. The Irish used this to their advantage in order to circumvent the system. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, they built churches, staffed schools and when their representatives wouldn’t advocate for them in government, they ran for office.

With the election of Richard J. Daley as Chicago’s mayor in 1955, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have grown. Politicians running for local or state office often appear in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. There’s also the South Side St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the famous festivities found in the Loop every year, including the dyeing of the Chicago River.

Although the amount of commercialism has risen, given the amount of “Kiss Me I’m Irish” buttons that are sold to those who are not at all Irish and our sports teams all dawn green jerseys around this time, I think it’s still incredibly appropriate for Chicagoans to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a way to pay tribute to the vast influence Irish-Americans have had in our history.

Maybe it wouldn’t seem so garish if Chicagoans incorporated more authentic themes of the true nature of the holiday, but maybe we can keep the green beer, because that is just plain fun. Let’s also remember the triumph of Irish-Americans against oppression and their contributions to making Chicago what it is today.