Published February 1, 2007
St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 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 not only the cultural traditions and religious heritage of the Irish but also the historic American commitment to embrace the multifaceted traditions of all immigrant peoples who have come to U.S. shores.
Here in Atlanta the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade was first held in 1858 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. But sometimes people forget that a holiday such as this originally came out of dire and compelling circumstances: the horror of famine in Ireland 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.
This St. Patrick’s Day, honoring all Americans who have come to this country in hopes of finding new opportunity, the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee announces its annual 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 Dr. James W. Flannery, director of the W. B. Yeats Foundation and a member of the Irish Studies program of Emory University. All entries submitted become the property of Atlanta St. Patrick’s Parade, Inc.
Students are encouraged to look at the meaning of St. Patrick’s Day from any number of perspectives: historical, religious, sociologic, folkloric, cultural or multicultural. Organizers encourage students to share their familial or community histories, stories and customs with the committee, whether or not they happen to be Irish. Another suggested approach might be to look at the life and values of the beloved 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.
In a phone interview Flannery reflected on how the celebration originated as a way for impoverished Irish immigrants in the United States to celebrate their heritage and culture as they struggled in the face of discrimination to establish themselves here and succeed in the 1800s. But in modern, pluralistic United States, he believes it’s a valuable exercise for youth to think beyond the green beer and shamrocks and reflect on the broader and deeper significance of St. Patrick’s Day to them personally. A democratic society “is about enabling human beings to achieve their potential and become what they always dream to be, and St. Patrick’s Day is a public celebration of that, originally about the opportunities provided in American society and culture for the Irish to achieve their dreams,” said Flannery. “I think today the holiday should be a recognition and celebration that the dream ideally is available for all people, and that’s what I truly encourage people to reflect on in this essay contest.”
The Emory professor of arts and humanities recalled how last year’s winning essay writer Marcella Preininger described how her mother immigrated to this country from Peru fleeing the oppression of the Shining Path terrorist organization there and how her father’s parents fled Nazi Germany and Austria—to her, the Irish represent hopes for all ethnic groups coming to the United States. She began the rhetorical and rhythmic essay describing the holiday’s original intent to honor the saint born in England around 385 who was kidnapped by pirates at age 16 and taken to Ireland where he was sold as a slave and worked as a shepherd for six years where he only found comfort in God.
“One day, Patrick heard God’s voice telling him to run away to a place where he could devote his life to the Lord. After his escape he completed his education in England and heard God’s voice again. This time God told him to go back to Ireland to teach the Irish Christianity” in the land of pagans where most worshiped gods of nature, she explained, including that Irish grew to love him as he went on to teach about the Bible and God’s love across Ireland for 40 years.
Preininger wrote about the “ the cocktail of different traditions and celebrations” in America today, such as Mardi Gras and Chinese New Year, and described her own mixed-ethnic heritage. She concluded that St. Patrick’s Day is a day on which to honor a great man who transformed Ireland through the power of God.
“Yet it is even more than that, because thousands of people who are neither Irish nor Christian celebrate the holiday as well. They celebrate it because the Irish represent us all. Every American has been influenced by other cultures because America is a melting pot of tradition,” she wrote. “The Irish fled their country in search of a better life, just as many other immigrants have. … Most of all, they shared their tradition with us and brightened our lives with their celebrations just as many other immigrants have. America would not be the great and beautiful country it is today without all the immigrants who have come to us with hardships in their past but hope in their hearts. St. Patrick’s Day is a tribute to all the immigrants, and a way to celebrate our country and all the people who helped make it what it is today.”
Flannery recalled another year how one African-American youth had written a moving essay describing how he never understood why his mother had him wear a St. Patrick’s Day pin on the holiday until he contemplated how both the Irish and his ancestors had come to the United States as oppressed people but had been able to free themselves and succeed.
Flannery’s love of his heritage as the son of Irish immigrants and an expert in Irish literature and culture has deepened his appreciation for other cultures as well, as he is married to a Hungarian American, taught for 15 years in a French-Canadian university, has studied four languages, traveled extensively, and is a member of a Scottish Burns club. “The more deeply you understand your own traditions, ideally the deeper you understand the traditions of other people. I don’t respond favorably to triumphalism in any ethnic tradition. There’s a huge danger in that.”
He is excited that Atlanta’s annual parade, while retaining its essential identity as a celebration of Irish heritage, has become more ethnically diverse and better attended as a family celebration in recent years, reflecting the rich diversity of cultures in Georgia. Last year he sat behind the grand marshal Mayor Shirley Franklin, who wore a huge green hat. This year’s grand marshal is the chairman of Coca-Cola, Neville Isdell, who is a Northern Ireland native.
“My hope is the St. Patrick’s Day parade would become—and the contest itself is a pathway—would become a more of a multicultural holiday. … I think it should be more of an inclusive kind of event especially in a city like Atlanta, and that’s what these kids have expressed in their essays.”
Announcement of the winner will be made on Friday, March 16, at the breakfast meeting of the Irish Chamber of Commerce USA. The winner will be presented with a check on Saturday, March 17, at a dignitaries breakfast and will be an honored guest at the 148th annual Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which follows the breakfast.