The History of Irish Traditions in America

The History of Irish Traditions in America

When it comes to Irish traditions in America, many of us are like Harrison Ford in “The Devil’s Own.” Ford’s character and his family are excited to host an actual Irishman, so they serve him corned beef and cabbage. Their guest compliments the meal and says he’s never had it before.

Irish Americans are often fiercely proud of their ancestry and the Emerald Isle. Often, however, their knowledge of Ireland and Irish traditions in America is secondhand. Americans of Irish descent tend to do things differently than their cousins across the pond.

According to the 2016 American Community Survey, 10 percent of Americans claim Irish ancestry. Doubtless, many of these lads and lasses grew up with traditions that they believe come directly from the Auld Sod. Let’s take a look at some popular practices and beliefs of the Irish in America and where they originate.

Corned beef and cabbage with potatoes and carrots on St Patrick's Day

An “Irish” Tradition in America: Corned Beef and Cabbage

The early Irish did not eat beef at all. Cows were sacred symbols of wealth. Pork was and is a far more popular meat.

It was the later British influence that spread the practice of eating beef in Ireland. Ireland was a significant exporter of cattle to Britain until the Cattle Acts of the mid-17th century. With this act, Ireland could no longer export their cows to England.

Ireland suddenly had a lot of cattle and a lot of salt (thanks to a low salt tax). They, therefore, became a top exporter of beef packed in salt the size of corn kernels – “corned beef.” Corned beef was popular in England, France, and their colonies. 

Due to English anti-Catholic laws in Ireland, the Irish themselves were often too poor to purchase beef. When Irish began immigrating to America in the mid-19th century due to the potato famine, they continued to face prejudice. The Irish clustered together in New York City neighborhoods adjacent to Jewish neighborhoods.

The most affordable beef available to Irish immigrants? The flavorful corned beef briskets boiled with cabbage and potatoes by Eastern and Central European Jewish immigrants.

Ireland doesn’t seem to have picked up the practice of eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. The meal was popular enough in the US, however, that Abraham Lincoln chose it for his 1861 Inaugural luncheon.

Unfortunately, when you eat corned beef and cabbage on the 17th of March, you aren’t observing an Irish tradition. You are, however, participating in an uniquely Irish American tradition!

Anti-Irish Prejudice in America and Abroad

As we saw with corned beef and cabbage, anti-Irish sentiment in America influenced the creation of new traditions. 

Opposition to Irish nationalism in Britain also created new Irish traditions in America. Take the example of St. Patrick’s Day itself.

St. Patrick’s Day was originally and primarily a religious holiday for the Irish. Catholics in Ireland observed the feast day of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, by attending Mass at churches. 

The Irish associated green with their country due to its famous 40 shades of green. Queen Victoria outlawed the Irish people from wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day. The next St. Patrick’s Day, Irish immigrants in New York took care to wear the color on March 17th. 

A close up of a real green 4-leaf clover with dew on it and a blue and green soft-focus background

The Origins of Popular Irish Symbols

Many people associate shamrocks and four-leaf clovers with Ireland, but not as many know the reason behind the relationship. 

According to tradition, St. Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity using the shamrock to illustrate the belief in the Trinity. This doctrine asserts three distinct entities of the same being. Those persons: Father (God), Son (Jesus Christ), and Holy Spirit (arising from the love between the Father and the Son).

The shamrock would have been an easy teaching tool for St. Patrick, given their ubiquitous presence in Ireland. Shamrocks have only three leaves; four-leaf clovers are much rarer. The lower frequency of four-leaf clovers lends to the superstition that they are lucky.

Everyone Loves a Parade

One of the most beloved Irish traditions in America is the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The very first St. Patrick’s Day parade in America took place in 1762. Irish soldiers serving in the British army staged a parade in New York City to honor their country’s patron saint.

To this day, New York City is the site of one of the country’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parades. Civic and religious groups all march in the New York City parade. Military units like the US Army New York National Guard’s “Fighting 69th” 69th Infantry Division also march.

Other American cities who are home to large St. Patrick’s Day parades are Savannah, Georgia and Chicago, IL. Chicago famously dyes the Chicago River green each year in observance of the day.

Irish dancing legs in national shoes and dress

The Irish American Experience in Film

Many Irish American families enjoy watching Irish movies. The John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara film, “The Quiet Man,” remains a perennial favorite. “The Quiet Man” tells the story of an American boxer who returns to his parents’ hometown in Ireland.

This old film paints an amusing picture of Irish and American stereotypes about each other at the time.

Another film beloved by Irish Americans includes “The Commitments.” This 1991 film is about a group of Irish kids who start a soul band. 

“The Devil’s Own,” the corned beef and cabbage movie, is a thriller about Irish American support for the IRA.

Irish Tartan Kilt

For Your Irish Traditions, The Celtic Croft Can Help

Do your Irish traditions date back to your ancestors’ arrival at Ellis Island? Perhaps you just stepped off the boat (or, more likely, plane) yourself.

However ancient or new your family’s Irish traditions, The Celtic Croft can help you celebrate them. Our Irish tartans and kilts will be a hit at your next St. Patrick’s Day party or family reunion. We also have Irish clan badges, brooches, belt buckles, and pins.

Irish traditions in America are some of our all-time favorite traditions. Visit The Celtic Croft for family heirlooms from our family to yours that your children and relatives will treasure.