By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 2, 2006
St. Patrick’s Day is the only American ethnic celebration that has become a national holiday. Held in honor of Ireland’s national saint, St. Patrick’s Day honors the cultural traditions of the Irish but also the historic American commitment to embrace the multifaceted traditions of all immigrant peoples who have come to America’s shores.
In the city of Atlanta the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade was first held in 1858 and sponsored by the Hibernian Benevolent Society. Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is even older, dating back to 1813 and is the second largest in the country. Thousands of people march in both parades to the skirl of brilliant pipes and drums, while revelers line the streets and enjoy the festive air.
Sometimes people forget that a holiday such as this originally came out of dire and compelling circumstances: the horror of famine and religious persecution, the sorrow of leaving one’s homeland, family and friends, the terror of ocean voyages in crowded, disease-ridden boats, and the challenge of building new homes in a foreign land.
“It was a way of their claiming in the face of discrimination that they too were working Americans. That’s how it became such a strong celebration amongst the Irish, and other Europeans had got in line behind that. They thought the Irish paved the way for them,” said Emory University professor Dr. James W. Flannery.
This St. Patrick’s Day, to honor all Americans who have come to this country like the Irish in hopes of finding new opportunity, the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee announces its second annual statewide contest for high school students. With a prize of $1,000 for the first-place winner and $250 each for two runners-up for a 1,000-word essay on “The Meaning of St. Patrick’s Day,” the contest will be adjudicated by a committee headed by Flannery, who is the director of the W. B. Yeats Foundation and a member of the Irish Studies program of Emory University. The submission deadline for the contest is March 1.
Students may choose from a variety of angles with which to explore the holiday and are encouraged to look at the meaning of St. Patrick’s Day from any number of perspectives: historical, religious, sociologic, folkloric, cultural or multicultural. The committee encourages entrants to consider sharing their familial or community histories, stories and customs, whether or not they happen to be Irish. Another approach might be to look at the life and values of St. Patrick: a slave himself, he was a fierce opponent of slavery. The only criterion is that, in some way, the essay should shed a fresh light on the continued meaning of St. Patrick’s Day.
Ed Moran, chairman of the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee that funds the contest, noted that for high school students the contest is “ a matter of learning about the past, who they are and where they came from and the history of the Irish in Georgia and the South. A lot of the early settlers of Atlanta were Irish and a lot came in later times when they build the railroad.” They are trying to have the Atlanta History Center have an exhibit in the future on Irish history here, he added.
Flannery said that last year’s response to the first contest exceeded all their expectations. The essays were “really quite fantastic, particularly coming from people not of Irish extraction and not Caucasian for that matter.” He recalled one submission by an African-American student from Augusta who wrote about his mother insisting that he wear a leprechaun pin on St. Patrick’s Day because it symbolized the struggle against difficult circumstances by Irish immigrants and African slaves to gain acceptance and ultimate empowerment here. The student learned that “St. Patrick was a slave and St. Patrick’s Day really was a commemoration of freedom,” continued Flannery as he recalled that essay. “St. Patrick spoke out strongly against slavery, and I think that is very important in the South” even today.
One student of Indian heritage traced the history of the holiday over the past few centuries and wrote that she, like many, knew nothing about it before but now realized that its true purpose lay in reminding Americans of the need to gain a deeper appreciation of all the cultures that contribute to the United States.
Last year’s winner, Paige Lanier from East Paulding High School, boldly began her essay by stating that “bagpipes, Guinness, and green are what come to most people’s minds when they hear the words St. Patrick’s Day. There are exciting parades, shamrocks galore and green as far as the eye can see. However, the celebrations are hollow. Many people have no idea what they are celebrating.”
She went on to explain the real story, how St. Patrick was born in 387 to a wealthy family in Britain but was captured during a raid and taken as a slave to Ireland where he was made to work as a shepherd for six years, developing a deep faith in God. He finally escaped, and later after becoming priest and then a bishop, he returned to Ireland as a missionary, determined to convert the Irish people to Christianity. He preached the Gospel to the warring pagan tribes there over 40 years until his death. Some people in Ireland, she continued, still celebrate the day of his death, March 17, as it was originally intended: a religious holiday honoring his legacy as the patron saint of the Irish people.
But as Irish immigrants poured into the United States to escape the Great Potato Famine of the 19th century, they needed a way to keep their culture alive and the holiday evolved into a general celebration of Irish heritage. As Lanier concluded her piece, she wrote that “St. Patrick’s Day is still changing. Muslim people, African people, Christian people, Jewish people, and many more all join together with the Irish people because they can all understand the need to keep a part of their history alive while still being involved in a country that is a jumble of cultures. What they are all celebrating is being separate but connected at the same time.”
In a reflection on her essay, Flannery wrote that “it seems to me that in her remarkable essay, Paige accurately describes many today who think of St. Patrick’s Day as merely an occasion to celebrate the coming of spring with a bacchanalian blast of green beer and plastic shamrocks. But far more importantly she has challenged us to envision what St. Patrick’s Day might become were it understood as a celebration of the plentitude of blessings that we all share as Americans, regardless of our particular ethnic, racial or religious background. It seems to me that building upon what Paige and several of the other contestants identified as the real contemporary meaning of St. Patrick’s Day, what we might do here in Atlanta is enable this quintessentially Irish holiday to become a festive occasion in which we honor not just the Irish, but the contributions of all the diverse cultures and traditions that make us who we are as Americans.”
The professor believes that today the broader and deeper significance of St. Patrick’s Day for all ethnic and racial groups is particularly relevant in Atlanta and the Atlanta Archdiocese, which is ever-increasingly multicultural with growing immigrant communities from across Latin America and as far away as Nigeria, India and China.
“A wider understanding of what it is would be helpful so that people could see it’s not just about Irish Catholic triumphalism, but about some of the positive aspects of the United States with its multicultural heritage … it’s pluralism, diversity and opportunities” for all Americans, he said.
Flannery has found that St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Atlanta and the South are inclusive, more like a festive rite of spring, and he hopes that in coming years the Atlanta’s St. Patrick’s Day Committee, in the spirit of the essay contest, will continue to find ways to make the parade and related activities even more educational and community-building. He is pleased that Mayor Shirley Franklin was named as this year’s Grand Marshal. Flannery suggests that one possibility for the holiday is to honor a different national, ethnic or racial group each year and have that group feature their culture—while continuing to find more meaningful ways to celebrate the immense contributions of Irish-Americans. After all, the Grammy winning Irish musical “Riverdance” draws its strength from combining Irish musical and dance traditions with Spanish, Russian and African-American traditions of the same flair and excitement.
As Lanier concluded in her prizewinning essay, “Yes, in the streets and pubs on St. Patrick’s Day all anyone is going to see is a sea of green. Paper shamrocks will decorate the walls and streets … Spectators will wave Irish flags. A pint of Guinness will be in many hands. Behind it all though, there is more to see than with the eye alone. In many people’s hearts they are thankful to live in a country that is such a beautiful blend of individuals, where they can live and worship however they would like. They are thankful to live in a country where a Buddhist ex-Canadian can dance to Irish music until the wee morning hours and get no punishment worse than a few laughs.”
Announcement of the winner will be made on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, and the winner will be an honored guest at the 125th annual Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day Parade along Peachtree Road, to be held on Saturday, March 18. The deadline for submissions is March 1. Entries should be mailed to: Dr. James Flannery, Director, W. B. Yeats Foundation, Winship Professor of the Arts and Humanities, Emory University, 1463 Oxford Road, NE, Room #307, Atlanta, GA 30322. For information call (404) 727-6180.