Let's go back across the seas and visit the Emerald Isle to see what the celebration of St. Patrick's Day is all about.
In the late fourth century, a 16-year-old boy, son of a noble Irish family living in Roman Britain, was kidnapped, sent to Ireland, and sold as a slave. Minding sheep in Ireland, this youth became close to God and his early Christian heritage.
Six years later, God showed him in a dream how to escape. Returning home, he later became a priest, and eventually returned to Ireland to care for and to convert the Celtic peoples to Christianity. We know him as St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
In Ireland, rather than trying to eradicate the native belief, Patrick incorporated the existing Celtic traditions into his teaching of Christianity. He converted the Celtic people and adapted many of their pagan traditions and symbols to Christianity. He explained the mystery of the trinity by using a three-leafed clover or shamrock with its three leaflets united by a common stalk.
Fast forward to the 1700s, when British conquerors confiscated the properties of the native Irish Catholics and exiled or enslaved more than two-thirds of the Irish people. Ireland was an agricultural nation but the people were among the western world's poorest.
They married young, had large families with high infant mortality, and male life expectancy was no more than 40. According to an 1835 British survey, half of the rural families lived in single-room cabins with dirt floors, slept on straw on the bare ground, and shared their living space with their pigs and poultry, if they had any. Multiple families dwelt together in dire circumstances in this beautiful Emerald Isle.
By the 1800s, English landowners had taken possession of much of the Irish land. Many of these landowners demanded unreasonable rents from the former Irish farmers, who might be allowed to live on a few acres of their subdivided property. Payment for tending the crops would be a portion of the crop of potatoes for their family.
The Irish Catholic farmers could be evicted at the will of the landlord. Any improvements were considered to be the property of the middleman or landowner so there was little if any incentive to improve conditions. This set the scene for hatred of the British.
The potato was an excellent crop, which had been brought from the Andes to the cool, moist environment of Ireland. It was sometimes the only source of food for the Irish farmer's family, but it was a good source of required nutrients. Buttermilk and possibly pork or cabbage might be added to their diet if available.
The "lumper" potato was planted in spring around St. Patrick's Day in March, but was not harvested until autumn. The potatoes were carefully stored in pits, but became unusable by July or August, the "hungry months." The poorest families would then beg at the roadsides and the farmer might go to England for temporary work until harvest.
For more than 200 years, the English had taken the Irish farmer's lands and levied exorbitant taxes that reduced the Irish to barely enough on which to exist. Those who foresaw the future left for America or Canada before the potato famine occurred.
In 1845 to 1851, potatoes were affected by viral blight. The tragedy of the potato famine years is that ships loaded with the foods that should have fed the people of Ireland sailed for England while thousands of Irish children and adults were left with their principal food, the potato, black and rotting in the ground.
The exodus began as Irish sorrowfully departed their homes and sailed on former slave cargo ships. Now called "famine ships," passage might be purchased for as little as $10 to America and less to Canada.
Three thousand miles across the Atlantic Ocean, they held tightly to the hope of finding a better world for themselves and their families. However, for thousands of those fleeing, the voyage brought death, starvation and disease. By 1848, Ireland's population had decreased by more than 2 million people through death by famine or emigration. The Irish certainly needed the help of St. Patrick.
At last they arrived in "The Land of Plenty, the Land of the Free, the Land of Opportunity." But life in America was not easy.
The immigrants were prey to cheaters, rogue landlords and others seeking to take advantage of their inexperience. Jobs were not that easily found, and the words "Irish need not apply" frequently accompanied the ads. Americans feared for their own jobs and that their wages would be lowered by the "cheap labor." Many of the Irish spoke English poorly or not at all; many were illiterate. Their clannishness and loyalty to each other could be a source of conflict and threat to others.
But the Irish prevailed. They worked hard, were flexible in their work, they learned the language and customs. They became educated and a vital part of America.
Immigration of the Irish to America was notable even before the potato famine. Boston became the site of the first public celebration of St. Patrick's Day in 1737. St. Patrick's feast day is thought to be the date of his death, March 17.
The first St. Patrick's Day parade was in New York City in 1766. In 1995, Congress proclaimed March as Irish-American Heritage Month.
The 2005 U.S. Census Bureau reports that more than 34 million U.S. residents claim Irish ancestry, which is almost nine times the population of Ireland itself (3.9 million). Irish is the nation's second most frequently reported ancestry, trailing only German. Since 1820, the earliest year for which there are official immigration records, 4.8 million immigrants from Ireland were admitted for lawful permanent residence.
The following quote was written in the March 8 Salina Journal: "I want to be free, to go wherever I want to go and not be scared. In the long run, it will be worth it. We can have a better life, and we won't be scared anymore." This was as true in the days of the immigrant Irish as it is today.
With the Irish, we celebrate March 17 honoring Saint Patrick but also the perseverance of the indomitable Irish immigrants. And let us never forget that most of us have descended from immigrants to our great country, America the Beautiful.
Ruth Moriarity is a member of the Generations Advisory Group