Thursday, March 17, 2011

FF: In Search of Steampunk St. Patrick's Day

A Victorian St. Patrick's Day postcard. I might heave.
Once upon a time, there was a fellow named St. Patrick. He did some awesome stuff with shamrocks, leprechauns, and snakes, and in honor of his awesome we all get blitzed in the pub every year. The end. Also if you don't wear green, you get pinched.

....This is most Americans' understanding of St. Patrick's Day. I'm not sure how folks in other parts of the world might partake in this most Irish and Catholic of holidays, but here in the United States St. Patrick's Day has become about as Irish as Cinco de Mayo is Mexican. Similarly, not many people know how this holiday developed or how it was originally celebrated.

Let's see if we can explore the origins, traditions, and how St. Patrick's (NOT St. Patti's) was celebrated in the 19th century so maybe we can piece together how it could be observed by steampunks.

An 1882 woodcut of St. Patrick holding a shamrock.

Let's make this history as quick and painless as possible. St. Patrick (or Padraig in traditional Irish) was born in 387 C.E. to a wealthy Romano-British family. For all accounts, he was a spoiled pagan brat. At the tender age of sixteen he was abducted and taken to Ireland and forced into slavery. He spent six year tending a flock for a local Irish lord and learned a great deal about the indigenous Celtic religion and the druids (this will come into play later). According to the two surviving and recorded letters that he wrote, he received a message from God as he slept, urging him to escape and return to Britain. He succeeded and joined that new-fangled Christian religion once he was safely home, effectively weirding out his short-relieved parents and old school chums.

But we all know that's not the end of the story! Patrick, having had some adventures wandering through Britain and France as a hermit, returns to Ireland to convert the people whom he once called master. Some converted gladly and became his disciples... while others weren't terribly convinced. To plead a better case for Christianity, Patrick retold scripture cast with traditional Celtic figures and concepts. The goddess Brigantia became St. Brigit, for example. He explained the Holy Trinity in terms of the three leaves of the shamrock. After a while (and several miracles) most of the country was on board, and Patrick died an old but venerated man, having driven out the "snakes" in Ireland (more on that later).

His feastday was set for March 17th (despite never being formally canonized...). Also, did you know that St. Patrick is the patron of paralegals and engineers in addition to Ireland and protection against snakes? Maybe Indiana Jones should have carried one of his medals on him during Raiders of the Lost Ark...

St. Patrick at work.

19th Century Ireland
Fastforward a few centuries and St. Patrick's Day is observed... well, like a holy day. Just like Hanukkah for Jews, before the modern era St. Patrick's Day simply wasn't a big deal, it was on a middle- if not bottom rung as far as feastdays were concerned. In fact, the only thing particularly special about it was the dispensation from the Church to raise the dietary restrictions of Lent so that it could be given a proper feast. Processions were led through towns, but they were religious in nature and typically lead the faithful to prayer at the church. It wasn't until 1903 with the Bank Holiday Act that St. Patrick's Day was made an official holiday in Ireland. Perhaps wisely, Parliament decided that the pubs should be closed for the ocassion. They weren't reopened for the holiday until the 70s! In IRELAND.

But what about some of those Irish-beyond-Irish traditions? Well... a few of those need explanation or debunking:

Shamrocks- St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach the pagan Irish about the Holy Trinity of Christianity, so it's been the symbol for Irish faith for centuries. During the 16th and 17th centuries under the Pale system of British colonization and rule, the shamrock became a symbol for indigenous pride in the midst of traditional cultural suppression, in addition to the harp.
Green- Blue was originally St. Patrick's color, but it was the green of the shamrock that caught on as the holiday's official color. Green is also one of the colors on the Irish flag, so there's also a sense of nationalism and cultural pride attached to it. In the 17th century, green ribbons and rosettes began to be worn to mark the day.
Driving Out the Snakes- This is allergorical, alluding to St. Patrick driving out all of the snakes (read: pagans) in Ireland. It is true, Ireland doesn't boast a snake population, but this is because it's an island and the last Ice Age kept the country too cold for reptiles to really flourish there.
Leprechauns- Oh boy, these fellows are teddy now in comparison to how they got started in Irish folklore. Originally the leprechaun was a mischievous, spiteful sprite that would appear in a red or green coat and pull pranks such as stealing milk from cows or shattering mirrors. They would also mend shoes, if appeased. On the grand scheme of Irish fae and creatures, they're like that one unemployed friend of yours that sleeps on your couch and drinks your juice... Not evil, but you sure as hell don't want him there.
Corned Beef and Cabbage- is thought of as the staple dish of St. Patrick's Day and this is true outside of Ireland. Back in the old country, a thick meaty rasher of bacon was the main course to the cabbage and potatoes, not beef. When thousands of Irish immigrated to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they found their usual cuts of pig to be far too expensive- so they took a cue from their Jewish neighbors who were enjoying corned beef. (Source: ALTON BROWN! I need not say more...) However, this doesn't make it any less tasty. If you're not a fan of either, I recommend Shepard's Pie or Colcannon.

Engraving of a leprechaun from around 1903 (wikipedia)

So... How Did We Get So Hung Over?
Basically, it's because St. Patrick's Day left Ireland. Yes, all common stereotypes of the Irish people aside, it was its immigration to places like the United States, Canada, and Australia that set it on a much more secular path. It was created out of a need for cultural solidarity and to remember their roots, rather than for a spiritual purpose. Some of the first big St. Patrick's Day celebrations occurred in large American cities in the mid-19th century by Irish community organizations and by veterans of the Civil War as a way to come together in camaraderie. Cultures mixed, the celebration grew, and the appeal extended.

Religious processions became secular parades, what was once an entirely Irish-oriented tradition became open and widespread to non-Irish communities, and let's face it, the pubs were open. Add a hundred years or so and we're dyeing rivers green and encouraging all citizens of drinking age to let loose and have a Guinness.

A raucous St. Patrick's Day celebration in 1860s New York.

All right, so I'm a little bit cynical of St. Patrick's Day. I really do understand why it's caught on around the world; it's a time to get together with your friends and have a good time, drinking or not. In fact, I plan on going to a traditional Irish dinner on Friday made by Mac of Steampunk Cookery and probably not imbibing (I better not, I have to drive!). Regardless of how many St. Patrick's Days in Detroit that I've seen, it can be a fun and educational holiday- I just want to set a few people straight on the culture and traditions they think are so Irish, similar to how a lot of the population sees Native American culture. (I.e. Do you really like us, or do you just like what Boondock Saints/Kevin Costner have shown you?)

But enough ranting!

Steampunk St. Patrick's Day?
So how would steampunks, in an alternate 19th century celebrate St. Patrick's Day? Well... it would depend, really. Personally though, I think in a more scientific age and with widespread travel possible via airship, rail, and submersible, that the secular aspects of the holiday would overpower the quiet religious one. Perhaps traditional songs played on steam, clock, and electric-modified instruments being played everywhere from London to Timbuktu to the bottom of the sea out of Irish pride. It's certainly something to consider!

Sean and Kat's Irish-inspired steampunk costumes, with a very appropriate background. Thanks for the photo!

An Assortment of Miss Kagashi's Favorite Traditional Irish Drinking Songs 
The astute of you will notice that "Danny Boy" isn't on this list... that's because that's a song of mourning (and English in origin) and therefore horrendously inappropriate to sing in a tavern on St. Patrick's Day. Besides, there are MUCH more fun songs to sing... songs that involve lewd words and scandalous situations! So should you find yourself well into your pints at a pub today, please show a good example for the other clods around you by singing one of these and NOT Danny Boy- for the love of St. Patrick.

For the teetotalers and those who want to play the home game, just play these as loud as your speakers can handle. Some of the content's suggestive, so don't say I didn't warn you! Also notable standards like " in the Jar" aren't on here because... well.. they aren't my favorites!

Finnegan's Wake- About a deceased gent's wake that goes a bit awry. Performed by the Dubliners.

Black Velvet Band- That warns about the dangers of drinking with mysterious, attractive women. For those who want a little punk in their steampunk, this version is performed by the Dropkick Murphys.

7 Drunken Nights- Chronicling a wife's affair and her nonchalant attempts to keep her drunken husband out of the loop. Performed by the Dubliners. Admittedly my favorite version is done by the Brobdingnagian Bards.

Johnny Jump-Up- Extolling the virtues of cider! Performed Gaelic Storm.

Wild Rover- About a carefree gent and his travels. Performed by the Pogues

The Parting Glass- A bittersweet tune meant to be sung in honor of those not joining you or company you're about to leave behind. Can and will make you weep like a child. Performed by Sinead O'Connor

Éirinn go brách (Ireland forever) and Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone!


  1. My thanks for sharing this with all of us!

  2. Over in San Francisco, this will be the third annual Steam Punktrick's Day celebration on Saturday, for any of you wanting to mix up the celebration. Live music by The Nathanial Johnstone Band and Heavy Sugar (an Unwoman production), DJ sets and swing dance lessons by Swing Goth.

  3. I'm a U.S.ian living in Dublin, Ireland and yeah... it's really different over here. Lots of drinking, no pinching, and no, they don't dye the Liffey green--frankly, they don't need to.

  4. Your article on St Patricks Day was very informative and well written, thanks for sharing this information. St Patricks day celebrations

  5. Học Cách làm đẹp của sao Nhật như Nozomi Sasaki, Yukie Nakama, Ayaka Komatsu là những nữ diễn viên sở hữu nhan sắc thiên thần và cực kỳ quyến rũ của Nhật Bản. Cách làm đẹp của sao Nhật mang lại vẻ đẹp rạng ngời...

    Sở hữu gương mặt nhẵn mịn sau khi cạo râu giúp phái mạnh ghi điểm trong mắt người khác, tuy nhiên vẫn còn nhiều quý ông có sai lầm thường mắc phải khi cạo râu để lại những vết sẹo không đáng có.

    Sở hữu vòng một căng tròn là niềm ao ước của nhiều chị em, nhưng Cách trang điểm cho vòng một căng tròn lại là bí quyết đơn giản nhưng vô cùng hiệu quả mà chị em không thể ít khi để ý.