March 18, 2022
Today is St. Patrick’s Day. The day that everybody is Irish. Green beer becomes a thing and corned beef abounds in the grocery stores. I usually buy a shamrock plant to brighten up the often-gloomy days of March.
When I was young, everyone, Irish or not, wore green on St. Patrick’s Day. If you didn’t, the other kids got to give you a pinch. Of course, if you were wearing hidden green, like socks or a handkerchief, you could show it to the pincher. You then got to pinch him ten times in return. At recess kids chased each other all over the playground looking for green. Recess was always a wild time on St. Patrick’s Day with all the running, pinching and screaming.
It was all just fun for me. I wore green, but I knew I wasn’t Irish. I knew exactly where my ancestors came from, and it wasn’t Ireland. I was half English and a quarter each Norwegian and Swedish. No Irish in the mix.
It wasn’t until I started doing genealogy that I learned that I actually had Irish ancestors. My second great-grandmother Elizabeth May had immigrated from Ireland in the 1820s. All those years of wearing green had turned out be in honor of my own ancestors. I was pleased, until I learned that there are two kinds of Irish. The green-wearing, corned beef-eating ones who are mostly Catholics and tend to live in the southern part of the island are one type. Turns out I’m not descended from them.
My ancestors were certainly Irish, but they were from the other, often overlooked Ireland. They came from the northern part of Ireland, or Ulster, and they were Protestants. They didn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at all. He was a Catholic Saint, after all.
Instead, the Protestants of Northern Ireland celebrated July 12. It memorializes the victory in 1690 of the Protestant Prince William of Orange over the Catholic King James which led to Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Later a fraternal Protestant organization called the Orangemen was formed in Ulster. For obvious reasons, the Orangemen wore orange sashes to their parades and picnics.
Friction between the Protestants and the Catholics festered for centuries in Ireland – particularly in the heavily Protestant North. It eventually led to the Troubles from the 1960s through the 1990s. Hundreds of Protestants and Catholics died in the violence of that era. Kenneth Branagh’s recent movie Belfast tells the story of one family who left Ireland in the 1960s to escape the Troubles. Although it is told from a Protestant viewpoint, it is a great way to see what the conflict between the two sides did to average people.
Although I’m still proud to claim my own Irish ancestors, learning more about the history of Ireland has dimmed my interest in wearing either green or orange. The colors’ association with the violence in Northern Ireland is still too close. I think I’ll try to think of another way to honor my Irish heritage. Maybe I’ll spend some time today writing up what I’ve learned about my Irish roots. I’m still happy to have a shamrock plant though!