History of St. Patrick’s Day holds lessons for modern Americans

Lance Melching

Hector Ziegler, webmaster

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Many Americans celebrated St. Patrick’s Day without realizing that 150 years ago, the Irish were one of the most hated groups in America. How did this happen?

Traditionally, St. Patrick’s story begins in fifth century Britain with a 16-year-old boy sitting in his family home when Irish pirates suddenly burst into the home, ransacking it and taking the boy with them.

The boy, taken from his home and turned a slave, was brought to Ireland where he was forced to herd sheep for the next six years. While being a herder, Patrick discovered Christianity, giving him a new purpose: to share his beliefs with the people of Ireland.

Patrick’s journey to convert Ireland to Catholicism took forty years to complete, and by A.D. 432 Patrick had successfully converted the entirety of Ireland to Christianity. He was named their patron saint, St. Patrick.

For 1500 years, the Irish have celebrated St. Patrick on March 17. In Ireland, the day is spent enjoying the St. Patrick’s feast with family and celebrating Irish heritage. In recent years, parades have also been thrown.

So how did a holiday celebrating Irish culture reach America?

This holiday was not always welcomed with open arms.  From 1845 to 1851, the people of Ireland suffered a disastrous famine called the Great Hunger, resulting in the immigration of approximately 4 million Irish to the U.S., according to the Irish national population census.

Not only were the immigrants accused of being rapists, criminals, and murderers, but they were often denied work, and the work they were granted would be in the harshest conditions.

Over time, more Irish refugees fled to America, and with every new refugee that entered, the further the American people’s feelings of disgust spread as the Irish were constantly treated with malice and hatred. These feelings of hatred towards the Irish ran deep into the mid 1840-50’s when the Know-Nothing party spread feelings of fear and disgust towards the Irish for political gain.

Opposing the Know-Nothings, was a man who would later become the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

In 1855, Lincoln addressed the nativist acts of the time: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’”

In the mid 1870’s, Americans began to embrace Irish culture rather than reject it, and several years later in, 1903, the first public celebration of St. Patrick’s Day was in New York. Since then, annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have been thrown throughout the nation, from Buffalo, New York to Dublin, Cal.

In modern America, people tend to focus more on the celebratory side as people have been known to wear tons of green and drink large amounts of beer, all the while, also trying to incorporate the color green and Irish culture into almost every aspect of their day, from the food they eat to even the way they speak.

Perhaps, there is a lesson to be learned by this reversal of Irish sentiment. Much like St. Patrick’s Day, holidays from other cultures will eventually be welcomed and celebrated as days to be proud of where you came from.

Maybe if we learn from history, the period of hate and discrimination can be avoided.