Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Five Ideas for a Victorian St. Patrick's Day

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! I don't do much for the holiday, except wear green in honor of my Irish ancestors on my father's side of the family. Oh, and indulge in a Shamrock Shake from McDonald's. I used to love those bright green, frosty treats from my childhood. Unfortunately, the last time I tried one --maybe a year or two ago--it just didn't taste as good as I remembered. So this year, I'll skip that old tradition and perhaps get a yummy drink from Starbucks or eat a St. Paddy's Day cupcake instead.

Here are five ways you and your family can celebrate St. Patrick's Day, the Victorian way.

Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York (2002)

Did you know that the first St. Patrick's Day parade wasn't in Ireland, but in New York in 1762? Stationed in Boston due to the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Year's War), a group of Irish men serving in the British army marched through the streets of New York City.

Today, the largest parades are in Boston and New York, while the oldest continuous parade is held in Savannah, Georgia.

Nicole Kidman in Far and Away (1992)
During the Victorian era, St. Patrick's Day was (as it still is) a religious holiday in Catholic Ireland, its atmosphere comparable to that of Thanksgiving in America; traditionally, one would attend mass in the morning and feast with family and friends in the afternoon.

While the holiday fell in the middle of Lent --the 40 days of fasting that last to Easter-- the Roman Catholic Church lifted restrictions against eating meat for the day so the Irish communities could celebrate their patron saint. As a result, corned beef and cabbage became an extremely popular St. Patrick's Day dish. Other popular traditional dishes include Irish soda bread, baked potato soup and fruit tarts.

Read great literature aloud. Some of the best literature written in the English language was penned by the Irish between 1800 and 1914. Whether you want to read scary stories by firelight or act out a comedy with the kids, these Irish writers will give you what you need:

Leo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York (2002)
  • For a good scare: Introduce your teenage Twihards to real literature with Dracula by Bram Stoker (1847-1912), the first modern vampire novel.
  • For a good laugh: Pick up The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), a hilarious satire of the British upper class.
  • For magic, monsters and fairy maidens: Delve into “The Wanderings of Oisin,” a collection of  poems based on Irish myths (and featuring St. Patrick himself!) by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who became first Irish writer to win the Nobel Prize in 1923.
  • For a realistic portrayal of Ireland, 100 years ago: Savor the short stories in Dubliners by James Joyce (1882-1941), who is often credited with “inventing” literary modernism
  • For a sing-along dramedy: Rediscover Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Shaw remains the only writer to have earned both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar for the same work–his stage play and screenplay for Pygmalion, which was later adapted into the beloved musical My Fair Lady. 

In the 1850's, the Industrial Revolution, well, revolutionized the concept of the greeting card, transforming it from an expensive, hand-made object d’art into a mass-produced piece of ephemera that one could purchase in an ordinary store.

When one thinks of St. Patrick's Day in the Victorian era, one can't evade the Irish potato famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1852, killing one million Irish men and women and forcing another million to leave their homeland. Caused and exacerbated by the British Parliament's mismanagement and neglect, the "Great Famine" prompted the rise in Irish nationalism and unrest that led to the war for independence in 1919-1921.

Today, historians refer to the famine as a watershed moment that initiated Ireland into the modern era--and as an event that need not have happened.

So while you feast on beef and cabbage and potato soup, there's good reason to take a moment to be grateful for simple things like the freedom to enjoy goofy, green-dyed food with your family and friends.

Courtesy of Elaine K. Phillips via victorianshomemag.com


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