There are a few days of the year based around Catholic holidays that have become heavily secularized. Christmas, of course, is the big offender in many eyes, and every year we have reports from the tinsel-choked and eggnog-spilled trenches of the “War on Christmas.” To a lesser extent, the same is true of Easter, while it seems like fewer and fewer people know who St. Valentine even is. With that, it’s probably no surprise that St. Patrick’s Day is has just become a day to celebrate being Irish.
But why? Why do we make such a big deal out of this day in the United States, to the point that some bishops offer special Lenten dispensations, even when (as it does this year) it falls on a Friday? St. Patrick’s Day isn’t even a big deal in Ireland, not compared to how we celebrate it in the United States. And corned beef isn’t even an Irish dish!
The answer is both simple and complex, and somewhat contradictory. No, it’s not actually an Irish day; but it’s rooted in being Irish. It’s a day steeped in Catholicism, and yet not in worship. And it’s a day that’s both very American and not at all, at the same time.
The Irish emigrated all over the world, but the greatest number of them ended up here in the United States. The reason for that is twofold. First, the majority of those emigrants left during an extended era of English Protestant persecutions in Ireland, where to be an Irish Catholic was to be the lowest of the low. Even coming to face further persecution in the United States was better; and the stories of signs saying “No Dogs or Irish Allowed” aren’t exaggerations. If anything, they’re tame. Catholics in Ireland couldn’t be formally educated beyond what we might call a third grade level today; they couldn’t be in government or own certain kinds of property; and for a long time it was even legal to shoot a Catholic priest on sight.
Have you heard of the Irish Potato Famine? The Irish simply call it the Hunger, and it hit poor Irish hard because potatoes were the main part of their diets precisely because the English didn’t care to take it from them the way they taxed grain.
During the Hunger, Ireland was actually exporting food, because many English didn’t want to waste it on the Irish. Some Protestants would actually go so far as to set up big soup cauldrons in villages, offering free food to any Catholics who would renounce their faith. Many would rather die. Others gave in.
Irish Catholics who came to the United States were entering another heavily Protestant country; in fact, Ireland was and is the only English-speaking Catholic nation in the world. But they were entering a nation that gave them far more opportunity, dirt-poor as they were, to succeed and better themselves and their families. Because as bad as it might have been to be Irish in the United States at the time, the United States still respected hard work. Ultimately, it didn’t matter your origins, as long as you pulled your weight. Factories, docks, and early police forces — jobs few others wanted — were all heavily dominated by Irish immigrants, and that in turn shaped the United States as a whole.
And most importantly, the second reason. They left a country where a priest could be shot on sight to live in a place where they could worship openly. They could go so far as to have great parades in the street, and even if some would get upset, no one tried shooting them.
Can you imagine how different that must have felt?
And that, too, shaped the United States. Dioceses were rapidly created by the Vatican throughout the young nation, in order to keep up with the explosion of Catholicism here. We’ve never been close to a majority, but as in most other nations we were responsible for a similar expansion of schools and medicine; there’s a reason why one in six hospitals in the United States are either outright owned by the Church or are officially affiliated with the Holy See, and why so many of the oldest universities in the nation have a similar history. Both teaching and tending to the sick benefit greatly from a religious tradition of redemptive suffering!
And all of that started with Irish immigrants celebrating the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. They had given up the land of their ancestors, but kept the faith of their fathers. They could stand tall and proud and proclaim themselves not only Irish, but Catholic, and no one could tell them otherwise.
That is why St. Patrick’s Day is so important in the United States. That is why so many bishops give special dispensations from Lenten observances, even on a Friday. It isn’t an excuse to eat meat; it’s a recognition that even though this isn’t a solemnity like St. Joseph’s Day (the 19th of March), it nonetheless has massive cultural importance for Catholics in this nation, regardless of their own ethnic origins.
And I hope the symbolism of it being the feast day of a man who shook off bondage to return to minister to those who mistreated him isn’t lost on anyone. St. Patrick converted Ireland without any persecutions on either side. We could all use some of that today.
St. Patrick, pray for us.