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Celebrating traditions o' the Irish

The etiquette guy
Published Saturday March 14, 2009

This week marks the occasion of St. Patrick's Day. Celebrations have been ongoing this week and will culminate on Tuesday. This holiday honours the patron saint of Ireland and is primarily a religious holiday in that country. In this short column I will point out a few interesting facts, myths and traditions for St. Patrick's Day.

St. Patrick was born in Wales. At the age of 16 he was captured, sold into slavery and taken to Ireland where he spent his time studying Christianity. After his release and return to Britain, he went to work in Ireland as a missionary. With a modest amount of religious education to guide him, Patrick successfully converted many Irish people to the Christian faith. It is said that St. Patrick's ridding Ireland of snakes is a metaphor for ridding the island of paganism.

Although the original colour associated with the man was St. Patrick's blue, over time it had changed to green, reflecting many shades of green in the Irish landscape. The shamrock represents the holy trinity and was a tool for the young missionary's way of teaching Christianity.

Falling within Lent, this celebration was a welcome one-day reprieve from the abstinence of alcohol and has been celebrated with great enthusiasm since the 18th century.

In Ireland, the traditional food eaten on this day was Irish stew, a simple dish originally made of mutton, onions, potatoes and parsley. Over the years, carrots, turnips and stout have been added to the recipe. A great Irish stew is a fantastic meal and is often complemented with Irish soda bread. Here is a wonderful recipe that makes a moist and lovely loaf.

Irish soda bread

Pre-heat oven to 350 F.

Grease and flour a loaf pan.

Soak 1 cup raisins in warm water to plump.


  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 4 tsp. of baking powder
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp. sour cream

Add the raisins

Pour into loaf pan and bake for 50 minutes. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick or straw in centre. Continue baking another few minutes if needed.

In Canada and the U.S., the traditional St. Patrick's Day meal is often corned beef and cabbage. Beef in Ireland was far more expensive than lamb. Therefore lamb was used (and sparingly I might add). When the tax collector came by and could smell meat cooking, your tax bill might well go up, so onions covered the meat nicely in the pot. When the thousands of Irish immigrants settled in Canada and in New York, especially during the potato famine of the 1840s, they lived in close proximity to their Jewish neighbours.

It was the Jewish people who introduced the Irish to corned beef. The brisket was an inexpensive cut and the corning process helped to preserve it. And, if the truth be told, the word 'corning' refers to the pieces of salt used for curing which were about the size of corn kernels.

This main course is served with potatoes, cooked cabbage and other root vegetables which would have been stored throughout the cold winter months. For those curious about cabbage, it was introduced to the British Isles by the Celts, who brought it from Asia during the 6th century B.C. And, while we're at it, potatoes were brought from South America to Europe in 1536.

As to green beer, St. Patrick's Day parades and other celebrations of this holiday, we can find most of the origins in New York City. I remember when living and working in that fair city, in the '70s and '80s, that March 17 was a day off for many.

It was a time to think about leprechauns, rainbows and pots of gold.

Lucky thing, I suppose.

Whether you enjoy collecting four-leaf clovers, expounding about the gift of gab brought to you by kissing the Blarney Stone (I confess to having kissed it myself), or enjoying a good pint of Irish beer, St. Patrick's Day has a wonderfully unifying force that serves to lighten one's spirits if only for a day. We appreciate the customs of a foreign land and its richly diverse heritage. We take a moment to think of the struggles of many people over the centuries and realize how fortunate we are to come from such strong stock.

Our resilience is echoed in the respect we have for our ancestors, wherever they may have come from, and for people all over the world who make up the fabric of the society in which we live. And to think that it all begins and ends with respect.

Erin Go Bragh!

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