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March 17, 2012: Green Stripes and Colcannon

March 17, 2012

St. Patrick’s Day always leaves me feeling a bit conflicted. I am a huge fan of Irish history, culture, literature, etc. but, St. Patrick’s Day, distilled down through American interpretation I find a tad….well….silly.

For me, the silliness started very early. Maybe because a lot of the nuns who ran my grade school were American-Irish themselves, they made St. Patrick’s Day a bit of a fest. Being the sugar-deprived child that I was, I would never turn down the cupcakes with green icing, but the “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” and “Erin go bragh” (Ireland Forever) buttons, along with the chintzy green bowler hats stuck me, even then, as a bit over the top. The worst it ever got was from the bar down the street. Every St. Patrick’s Day, some drunken idiot painted a green shamrock on the street, always forgetting (or not caring) that cars would roll right over all that fresh paint and make green stripes all up and down the street!

My perception of Irish culture, literature, and history changed drastically in junior college. Just about every student has that one teacher that makes a big difference in their life. My Irish Mythology teacher was that person for me. Not only was a fantastic teacher, but to this day, when I re-read his books, I am still amazed at his insight. That class lead to all the other wonderful Irish literature: Joyce, Yeats, etc. as well as an interest in Irish history…particularly ancient Irish history. In the Autumns of 1988-89 I biked across Ireland, photographing ancient burial chambers and dolmens that dot the Irish landscape. This was an adventure of a lifetime where I was completely immersed in everything truly Irish:  literature, art, artifacts, landscape, history, weather, people, and  food.

For the past couple of years now, Yoshio has invited me to talk about Irish food at the Showa Institute. Yoshio does a very unique thing in his class to Japanese students: he teaches American culture largely through American food. When I first did research for my talk, I was amazed to find how very little truly Irish food there was in modern life. What comes to mind, when you think of Irish food? Corned Beef and Cabbage? Cabbage…yes, quite Irish. Corned Beef? Nah, not so much. Beef was only for the rich in Ireland. The closest they have to this dish in Ireland is a kind of fat-back and cabbage dish. A salmon dish would be spot-on. Not only plentiful in Ireland, salmon appear in many ancient Irish stories, as “animals of wisdom.” But, in the two Irish cookbooks that I own, I couldn’t find a salmon dish without a French or English sauce! Colcannon comes pretty close to being authentically Irish. This is a mixture of kale (or cabbage) with mashed potatoes and cream, that is then baked. Absolutely delicious! The problem with this dish is that, as much as potatoes have made such an impact in Irish history, they originally came from America.

So, a few other historical reality checks on this St. Patrick’s Day: First, Phádraig (his Irish name) or Patricius (his Roman name) i.e. St. Patrick, was NOT Irish. He was most likely either Welsh or Cornish and was picked up by Irish pirates to be sold as a slave. St. Patrick had NOTHING to do with why there are no snakes in Ireland. He most likely did NOT use the shamrock to describe the Trinity. You know what the Irish do to “celebrate” St. Patrick’s Day? They climb up and down Croagh Patrick (Mount Patrick, County Mayo, 2507 ‘high) as an act of penance for their sins, some of them barefoot!

Hey, I’m not saying don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day if you want. Just make it real, not silly, and something remotely to do with Ireland. If you want to party and have some beer, please make it  one of the many excellent Irish brews out there…and please…leave the green dye…and for goodness sakes, the green PAINT at home!

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One comment

  1. My sister made Guinness chocolate cake on Saturday. I don’t know if it’s traditionally Irish, but according to her, it was very, very good.



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