March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day.
Why am I bringing up this feast day dedicated to the patron saint of Ireland, Lá Fhéile Pádraig, “the Day of the Festival of Patrick,” on a website dedicated to saving money?
Because over the years, the Irish have been brilliant at stretching their money and resources.
They had to be.
The Great Famine decimated their chances in the old country — most were tenants of small landholdings, many which had been divided and subdivided over the generations. When suddenly potato plants, even the potatoes in storage, began to rot and smell, their main source of food and income disappeared.
Many had no chance but to take ship to America, something their landlords (many of them absentee English aristocrats) encouraged. After all, those plots could be used for running sheep and cattle. (Relatives on both sides emigrated to America like this, including three Brick brothers who left from County Cork for the New World.) By 1854, between 1.5 – 2 million Irish had left their country — many of those to Canada, then the United States.)
These newcomers landed with little money or contacts, except friends and family who might have come beforehand, but in similar circumstances. They solved this in ways we can still learn from today:
*They shared lodgings. Until they could afford better, entire families lived in a single room — two, if they were lucky. (Bill Cullen Pennyof Apples and Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame grew up in similar circumstances.) If members banded together to contribute to the family coffers, this didn’t take long.
*They adapted inexpensive ingredients into tasty, filling food. Potatoes still played a starring role — for good reason. They don’t have fat or cholesterol, yet provide a healthy slug of fiber, as well as potassium and Vitamin C. (In fact, potatoes were a prime way to prevent scurvy.) Add long-keeping root vegetables like cabbage and onions, and Irish dishes like colcannon and boxty were born.
Surprisingly, corned beef and cabbage is not actually a traditional dish in Ireland. But in America, Irish immigrants shared tenements with Jewish neighbors — who made good use of inexpensive beef cuts by corning, or preserving raw meat in a salt brine with spices. The Irish knew a good bargain when they saw one — and substituted corned beef for the pork and lamb they were more used to. (You’ll find 50 traditional Irish dishes here, from bangers & mash to brown bread and Dublin coddle — and yes, corned beef and cabbage, too. With rare exceptions, they’re budget-priced. Any one could make your holiday a delicious one.)
*They kept their entertainment simple — and meaningful. Music played a large part, especially at the local pub. These “trads,” or traditional music sessions (seisiún in Gaelic), gave local people a chance to bring instruments and play for a few hours — all for the price of a free drink or two. And in the process, trads helped preserve classic Irish music. Wistful tunes on Irish independence ,
as well as rollicking ballads like “Drowsy Maggie’s Reel” and “the Butterfly Slip,” have benefitted, as have instruments like the bodhran, harp, accordian and whistle. (Try this for more.)
People today still enjoy going to trad sessions… and playing in them. Bartenders love them, because they bring in traffic. As long as you’re careful to restrict your consumption, you’ll love them, too. (Check local bars for the nearest trad session — here’s New York City’s list.)
Storytelling is another strong Irish tradition — and a good reason why many Irish writers, including C.S. Lewis, William Yeats and Oscar Wilde became poets, essayists, novelists and dramatists. Others, like J.R.R. Tolkien (who was actually British, but had many Irish friends), were heavily influenced by Irish sagas and folktales.
*They went where the work was — and took what was available. Although many emigrants stayed in big cities, which had more opportunities (albeit badly-paid), they also took advantage of events like the Gold Rush (and the founding of Western states) and the Oklahoma Land Rushes. The building of the transcontinental railroad (1863-69) was a special boon to Irish labourers who couldn’t find work in the city….and gave them a chance to scout out opportunities for homesteading while they traveled.
|The 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush – there were several|
*They adapted to prejudice by fighting back. Bigotry was rife, especially for newly-arrived immigrants. They dealt with it by forming political blocs, many which are still active and influencing cities today. (Chicago, fourth-largest in the U.S. for its Irish population, is a prime example.) Can it turn into graft and corruption? Sure…but this scrappy persistence kept the Irish alive and involved. And eventually it earned them respect.
In case you’re wondering why drinking is connected with St. Patrick’s Day — traditional restrictions on drinking and feasting, normally enforced for Catholics during Lent, were temporarily lifted for the day. But skip the green beer, and enjoy a pint of Guiness or Smithwicks, or a tot of Jameson’s whiskey, instead.
Throw a brick of peat on the fire, and enjoy a slice of apple cake or soda bread on March 17. (Recipes are on the link above.) Celebrate a tribe whose ingenuity and resourcefulness gave the world spice. Hey, we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
Erin go Bragh! (Éirinn go Brách) Ireland Forever.