Commemorating the patron saint of Ireland in extraordinary ways

The Chicago River turns green on March 17 every year as part of the St Patrick’s Day celebration in Chicago, Illinois. – AFP.

There’s a saying that, “Everyone’s Irish on March 17.”

Given the party paraphernalia and Irish goodies on sale in shops and supermarkets all over DC in the run-up to St Patrick’s Day last Tuesday, you could say there’s a kernel of truth to that.

Since this day always falls in the middle of the Christian period of Lent, it also provides a break from the austerity – and perhaps abstinence from finer things – that is traditionally practised in the weeks preceding Easter. Besides, the recent glorious, spring weather in DC warranted a celebration anyway!

It never hit me prior to my move here, how big of a deal St Patrick’s Day is in the United States. The US census data from 2013 might explain it though: 34.5 million Americans had listed their heritage as either primarily or partially Irish, which was seven times larger than Ireland’s own population then (4.6 million). Irish is the second most common ancestry among Americans, falling just behind (surprise, surprise!), German.

St Paddy’s (short for Padraig) wasn’t even an Irish public holiday until 1904, and many pubs there remained closed on March 17 until the mid-1960s. It is the US that is often credited with the merrymaking now associated with the day. According to The Independent, the Charitable Irish Society of Boston organised the first US celebration of St Patricks in 1737 with a small elite dinner to celebrate the Irish saint.

As increasing numbers of Irish migrants arrived on American shores, and faced discrimination and were ostracised for being “dirty, diseased or drunken,” the celebration offered them an avenue to express national pride and “praise both the spirit of their homeland and their new home.”

The Chicago River turns green on March 17 every year as part of the St Patrick’s Day celebration in Chicago, Illinois. – AFP.

As with most days of significance, manufacturers were quick to identify its money-making potential and so by the mid-20 century, it began turning into a “day for parades, parties and pub-crawls”.

And there certainly are some extraordinary ways in which the death of the patron saint of Ireland is commemorated here.

Topping my list is the dyeing of the Chicago River. Apparently, this over 50-year-old tradition arose by accident. Plumbers had used fluorescein dye to trace pollution discharges in the river, thus turning it a vivid green, identical to the greens of the Emerald Isle. A local parade organiser spotted it and the Chicago River has since been turned Irish green every St Pat’s Day.

Eventually, the Environmental Protection Agency outlawed the use of fluorescein given its harmful effects on the river. Undeterred, the city’s St Patrick’s Day committee switched to mixing 18kg of powdered vegetable dye, the ingredients of which they claim are secret like Coca Cola’s, but which they claim is environmentally sound. The Chicago Journeymen Plumbers’ union still sponsors the dyeing of the river.

In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama, a Chicago native, requested that the fountain in the White House’s South Lawn also be dyed green to commemorate the day.

Parades are also commonplace, with the ones in the cities of New York and Boston being two of the four biggest parades worldwide, besides Dublin, Ireland and Sydney, Australia. The Independent states that the concept of a parade began in 1766 when Irish Catholic members of the British Army were permitted to march the streets of New York.

Even that other famous American institution, McDonald’s, commemorates the day with their limited edition Shamrock Shake. Introduced in 1970, the green concoction has a mint flavour and is made with reduced-fat vanilla ice cream and Shamrock Shake syrup, and is topped with whipped cream and a cherry.

My husband and I, meanwhile, were invited to our first ever St Patrick’s Day party, cheekily themed “Fifty Shades of Green.” For those who know me well, I adore such parties. I’d had my outfit planned, right down to my shimmery mint manicure!

We knew we were in for a ride when our taxi drew up to our host’s apartment that was awash in green light. Milling around the entrance were people in green, accessorised excessively with glittery shamrock boppers or shades, green felt leprechaun top hats, and green-and-white striped stockings. A couple of guys even braved the evening chill by wearing kilts.

Our host himself was initially unrecognisable in his elaborate leprechaun get-up, complete with bushy orange beard and top hat. He greeted us accompanied by a large inflatable leprechaun, which he warned, sometimes groped people. As the night wore on, though, the latter ran out of steam – so to speak.

But the party certainly didn’t. With green Rice Krispie treats and shamrock shaped cookies, videos of U2, Sinead O’Connor and Michael Flatley (doing the Riverdance) playing on the big screen, and free-flowing spirits, some of which were green, we all let loose till the wee hours.

Sure, we didn’t catch a parade or pub-crawl, but the revelry at the party more than made up for our initiation into celebrating St Pat’s Day, local style.

A picture of my normally “suited-and-tied” husband in a lime green wig is now proof of that.

Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Washington DC. She hopes to visit Dublin one day wearing a “Kiss Me, I’m Lucky” t-shirt, and by chance encounter Bono.

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