Irish American Culture: Pass the Colcannon

“Well, it takes all kinds of men to build a railroad.”
“No sir, just us Irish.”
- Railroad barons in “Dodge City,” Warner Bros., 1939

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, the day of all things Irish in the United States, I’m writing about my perceptions of Irish-American culture, having grown up as a German/Irish Catholic.

As the Irish are generally thought of by Americans as victims of English tyranny who never did anything bad to anyone, it’s not surprising that such a large number of people in the United States claim at least some degree of Irish ancestry. Americans tend to identify with the underdog, the little guy, the character who wins against all odds. The story Americans learn in school about the founding of America involves fleeing from and then overthrowing English oppressors, which, as you can see, fits with our (limited) perceptions of Irish history quite nicely. Regardless, Irish is the single-most reported ethnicity in the United States, and technically there are many more “Irish” in America than Ireland.

The Irish were generally slower to “move up” in American society than some other ethnic groups, though some of this can probably be attributed to a high cultural emphasis on conformity to Irish Catholic norms, and valuing sending children to work for the Catholic Church rather than into business. Today, Irish-Americans have become one of the more politically and economically successful ethnic groups in the US.

green Chicago river
Chicago river, dyed green every year for St. Patrick’s day

The urban Irish-American populations in Boston, Chicago and New York tend to identify strongly as Irish, and often have lengthy stories of how their family came to the United States (inevitably due to a potato famine). The large numbers of Scots-Irish in the American South don’t usually identify in the same ways, possibly because many of them came from Northern Ireland, and tend to be Protestant instead of Catholic. In the music of the American South, however, you can often hear an obvious Irish influence, and in some places the music hasn’t changed at all.

Ireland suffered from several complete and partial potato crop failures during the 1700’s and 1800’s, and a great number of the people who ended up leaving the island were fleeing starvation. Ireland lost more than a quarter of its population during the 1840’s, the heaviest period of Irish immigration to the US, with immigrants fleeing to countries all over the world in search of a better life.

The first Irish immigrants to the US lived in crippling poverty, had almost no education, suffered from high rates of alcoholism and mental illness, and were subject to violence and mistreatment, including the burning of Catholic churches in Philadelphia (1844).

The movie “Gangs of New York”, while lacking in historical accuracy, does an accurate job of portraying the deplorable living conditions in the 5-Points district in Lower Manhattan, home to many new Irish immigrants. Anti-Irish (and anti-Catholic) sentiment persevered well into the 1900’s, but it had waned enough by the 1960’s to see John F. Kennedy elected as the first Irish-American president, despite concerns from some about his “allegiance to the Pope”. You can still find black-and-white framed photographs of JFK in many Irish-American homes.

St. Patrick’s Day is a strange holiday, as it’s not celebrated with the same kind of gusto in Ireland as it is in the US. It’s a “high holiday” in the Catholic Church, so even though it always occurs during Lent (the Catholic season of temperance and self-denial), in Ireland it was typically an excuse for people to sneak off to the pub for a few pints. Americans took that idea and ran with it. In the US, it’s similar to “Cinco de Mayo”, which is celebrated in the US as a sort of “Mexican Independence Day”, when the 5th of May doesn’t commemorate Mexican independence in Mexico…

Anyways, March 17th has become the national day of celebration of all things Irish in the United States, and is celebrated by listening to “traditional” Irish music, wearing green clothing, green plastic jewelry, or green novelty hats adorned with shamrocks, leprechauns, maps of Ireland, long pipes, sheleighlies, and Celtic-style knotted crosses.

Parades featuring bagpipes and drum corps are held across the country (though in Chicago, bagpipers march in every parade, including Chinese New Year), and everything is painted or dyed green including: pets, McDonald’s® “Shamrock Shakes”, the Chicago River and even beer (avoid this). “Irish” food is consumed (though some foods are old Irish staples not eaten in Ireland anymore, and some never were) such as corned beef & cabbage, shepherd’s pie, Irish stew, colcannon, reuben sandwiches, soda bread, and of course, lots of beer.

More “traditional” Irish-American families will attend a Catholic mass, depending what day of the week the holiday occurs on. One of the nice things about St. Patrick’s Day is that it’s not just celebrated by Irish-Americans (or those who think they’re Irish-Americans); at a celebration the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day this year, I saw people of all national origins wearing green and other regalia. It was nice to see.

Of course, all stereotypes are rooted in ignorance, and applying characteristics of a limited group to a whole population is never an acceptable way to view a culture, and the stereotype of the Irish and Irish-Americans as over-imbibers is no exception. However, any and all other stereotypes aside, I think it can be agreed that Americans of Irish descent can be said to have a slight disposition to overindulge in a bit of “the creature” every now and again. St. Patrick’s Day is the most exuberant drinking holiday of the year in the US. Americans are ranked 25th in the world in alcohol consumption per capita, but I estimate about half of that drinking gets done on St. Patrick’s Day.


Don’t try this in Ireland. Credit

In addition to other Irish-American things that aren’t Irish, some Irish-American adult beverages are named after things that are detestable in Ireland itself, such as the “Black and Tan” (likely of English origin). The “Black and Tans” were an English paramilitary group who were organized to combat the Irish Republican Army between 1920 and 1921, but are most well-known in Ireland for opening fire on a football crowd at Croke Park, Dublin. Another is an “Irish Car Bomb”, which I shouldn’t have to explain the offending nature of. Order either drink in Ireland itself, and you’re likely to receive dirty looks, if you’re not immediately ejected from the pub.

Like a lot of cultural elements America has adopted, a lot of what is called “Irish” in the United States doesn’t bear much resemblance to what goes on in Ireland itself; both because the two cultures have been diverging since the waves of immigration in the 19th century, and because Americans tend to create their own traditions as they see fit. But why should that be stopping us from having a good time, now? Erin Go Bragh! (Ireland Forever)

Read more:
Everyone’s Irish on March 17th: the Irish take on St Patrick’s day
Navigating Chicago’s cultural stew
‘The awful German language’ – experiences learning German

About the author

Sean Oliver
My name is Sean Oliver, and I'm a project manager for Language & Culture Worldwide, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. We also offer a full suite of language services. I have a BA in Anthropology, with a focus in Archaeology, as well as a self-designed minor in Sex and Gender Studies. I grew up in Ohio and have traveled extensively, moving to Chicago during the Summer of 2002. I have no intentions of living anywhere else; Chicago is one of my favorite places on the planet. I feel most at home in America's MidWest, though it's good to get out and see the world every now and again. I write mostly about American culture, drawing attention to the vast differences between Americans across ethnicity, class, gender, generations, etc.
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8 Comments

  • marta

    I wonder what product they use to get that green colour for the river! Very interesting post, Sean!

  • Sean O.

    It’s a closely guarded secret. Seriously!

  • Love love love the green river!

  • I hope nobody here heard that awful rumor of some people wanting to change St. Patrick’s Day to Shamrock Day.
    If it ever comes to a vote – you know what to do.
    Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all from Dublin Visitors http://www.dublinvisitors.webs.com

  • Learned somethin’ new!

  • great post, SeanO. the part about the “Black and Tans” is something I hadn’t thought about — nice piece, and well-researched!

  • I’m an American and I lived/worked in Ireland for about 2 years. Saint Patrick to the Irish was a saint. Not a party.

    Mt. Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland. About a million pilgrims and visitors make the trek to the top to pray at the stations of the cross, participate in Mass, do penance.

    There are 3 stations and each has a ‘task’ that the pilgrim has to do.

    First Station
    1. Walk 7 times around the mound of stones while saying: 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys, 1 Creed

    Second Station: The Summit
    1. Kneel and say: 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys, 1 Creed
    2. Walk 15 times around the chapel while saying: 15 Our Fathers, 15 Hail Marys
    3. Walk 7 times around Patrick’s Bed saying: 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys, 1 Creed

    Third Station:
    1. Walk 7 times around each mound of stones saying: 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys, 1 Creed
    2. Walk 7 times around the whole enclosure of Roilig Mhuire praying.

    The serious pilgrims (each time I type pilgrim I hear John Wayne saying it in my head)…
    The serious pilgrims walk up the mountain (barefoot) by taking a step, genuflecting and making the sign of the cross, standing and taking a step. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this comment to an image of the mountain.

    Walking on the sharp rocks is like, well, like walking on sharp rocks. At the end of the pilgrimage people have to go to hospital to heal the wounds.

    Happy Saint Pádraig’s day!

    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_Xd9PEuo95vc/SIY1qLCCHeI/AAAAAAAAApw/AOOkGdcLaYg/s400/croagh-patrick-climb.jpg

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