Every March 17, the Gaslamp Quarter becomes the emerald jewel of San Diego, when ShamROCK arrives. San Diegans don green clothes, drink green beer, indulge in leprechaun-worthy shenanigans, watch parades, eat corned beef and even dye their hair green. Revelers celebrate all things Irish, and claim to be Irish, if only for a day. The Gaslamp becomes a sea of green with food, music and of course, that necessity – green beer.
Most of these traditions weren’t imported from Ireland though – they were made in America! Since 1631, March 17 has been more of a holy day rather than a holiday for Ireland. St. Patrick’s Day has been a religious feast day to honor and commemorate the anniversary of the 5th century death of the missionary credited with bringing Christianity to the Emerald Isle. In fact, not until the 1798 Irish Rebellion was green associated as the traditional color of the Irish saint. Prior to that, blue was the traditional color of Ireland’s patron. There were no parades, no green beer, and no corned beef. Catholics attended church in the morning and had a modest feast in the afternoon.
Although Boston claims to be the first to host a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in this country, records have been found that indicate that gunpowder blasts were fired to honor the saint in 1600 in St. Augustine, Florida. The following year, possibly at the request of an Irish priest living there, the pyrotechnics were followed by a procession through the streets.
On March 17,1737, two dozen Irish immigrants residing in Boston formed the Charitable Irish Society, both to honor St. Patrick and help any distressed Irishmen in the city. It is the oldest Irish organization in America, and to this day, they hold an annual dinner party.
The tradition of the annual parade was, ironically, started by Irish-born British Redcoats in 1762. They marched down 5th Avenue in New York City through lower Manhattan to a tavern for a celebratory breakfast. However, all these parades were not always merry. Some anti-Catholic mobs objected to the Irish marching down the streets of New York, so they started their own tradition known as “paddy making.” Effigies were constructed of Irishmen wearing rags, potato necklaces and holding whiskey bottles. After the failure of the Irish potato crop in 1845, which greatly increased immigration, the parades were used by the Irish-Americans to show solidarity and as a political retort. After the Civil War, attitudes began to change as many fought in the conflict, and they were more easily assimilated into the prevailing American culture. Now even those without Celtic blood could join in the celebration and lift a pint!
Sometimes too many pints were lifted before the parade, which resulted in chaos . Such was the case in New York in 1867. A heavy snowfall had left mounds of snow along the route, and one wagon became stuck. Several other participants became irate as the rest of the parade was held up. When a police officer stepped in to help, he was knocked down and injured. Anger spilled over onto other participants and bystanders, and the parade became a melee. This no doubt was at least partially responsible for the ensuing stereotype of Irish as being rowdy individuals who drink too much and who like to fight when drunk!
The meal that became a St. Paddy’s Day staple – corned beef and cabbage – was also an American innovation. In Ireland, the meal was ham and cabbage, but impoverished immigrants were always looking for a cheaper substitute. When ships came into port, the women would rush down to the docks hoping to buy leftover salted beef from the ship’s cook. This was usually sold for a penny a pound but had to be boiled two to three times to remove the brine. During the last boiling, cabbage and potatoes were added.
The shamrock, the most common Irish symbol, had its origin with the man of the hour, St. Patrick. He used the traditional three-leaf clover, as a metaphorical representation of the Holy Trinity. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was regarded as a wild herb, and in the next century, it became the military symbol for dissidents during the political rebellions of the latter 1800s. Whatever your religious or ethnic origin, everybody likes a good party, and no St. Patrick’s Day party is better than ShamROCK in the Gaslamp. Join us!