For starters, Ireland is not one country, but two, situated on an island just east of England, and roughly the size of South Carolina. Officially established in 1949, the independent Republic of Ireland (capital: Dublin) takes up most of that land mass. Northern Ireland (capital: Belfast) is situated on the northeast side of the island and belongs to the United Kingdom, and thus, falls under English rule.
Yet this currently stable political environment is a recent development. For hundreds of years, Ireland has seen occupiers come and go, violence and peace wax and wane, as the people across the so-called Emerald Isle searched for a defining and unifying sense of self and culture.
Out of all the chaos and strife, many rock-solid traditions arose, all the while adding to Irish culture and giving this people an identity that's recognizable the world over. And part of that identity is awash in green.
Green has become the most Irish hue. This is in part because this temperate island is literally very green with foliage. The green shamrock, with its three leaves, is what St. Patrick purportedly used to teach the Christian Trinity to potential converts.
And although blue was the color originally associated with St. Patrick's Day, green eventually became the symbolic color of choice. This is because natives who supported Irish-Catholic nationalism often pinned shamrocks to their clothing. During one rebellion, a group of soldiers even went so far as to dress in green uniforms to draw attention to their desire for an independent Ireland.
In the mid-1800's, famine struck Ireland. Many Irish left behind their homeland and dispersed throughout the world, taking their traditions and customs with them. Much of the Irish culture is tinged with the struggles of their long oppression and suffering, yet in each song, dance, and delicious family recipe is steely resolve and hope.
And there's one slice of their culture in particular that speaks to the root of what it means to be Irish – the food. On the next page you'll read more about how Irish culinary choices are intertwined with the culture as a whole.
It may seem altogether too obvious or stereotypical to say that Irish food begins and ends with the potato, but in many ways it's simply true. The circle of life in Ireland has, at least since the 1600s, been less circular and more tuberous in shape.
England's colonial rule of Ireland left many Irish landless, powerless, and impoverished. As the 19th century dawned, poor Irish were only getting poorer and were forced to subsist on crops that would grow in the least desirable soils. That would be the potato, which flourished throughout the country.
And that’s why so many traditional Irish recipes lean so heavily on this particular plant. Many families would make simple soups and stews, which contained potatoes as their primary caloric content. Those recipes include colcannon(a mixture of potatoes and cabbage), boxty (potato pancakes), champ (green onions and mashed potatoes ) and many other potato-based concoctions. They supplemented those foods with oats, barley, bread, salted fish and milk.
There are many other dishes attributed to Irish traditions, including Dublin coddle (pork sausages), soda bread, bacon and cabbage (not corned beef and cabbage, which is more American than Irish), nettle soup and spotted dog (a type of bread). Northern Ireland, with its heavier British influence, has a few traditions of its own, such as the Ulster fry. The Ulster fry is traditionally made up of an assortment of fried foods, such as bacon and eggs, soda and potato bread, sausage, white or black pudding, and other cardiologist-disapproved foods.
In 1845, a swiftly-spreading fungus began destroying Ireland's potato plants, and by 1846, the Great Potato Famine was in full swing. Around 1.5 million people died of starvation, and over a million more fled the country to many parts of the world, taking their dietary traditions with them [source: History Place].
On the next pages, you'll see that the Irish also exported more than food sense. They also spread awareness of traditional Irish dress, song and dance.
Ireland's tumultuous history affected every bit of the island's culture, including clothing fashions. In poor times, peasant dress was exceedingly simple. Men and women alike wore might've worn simple knee-length leine, or shirts. Men worn just the leine, while women often used these shirts as undergarments covered by open-sleeved dresses.
But there are other, more recognizable traditional fashions in Ireland. The kilt is one of them. Although most scholars pin the development of the "man's skirt" on Scotland, Irish men also wore them regularly, especially in the early 20th century.
As with so many aspects of Irish culture, many wore kilts as a sign of solidarity with other people who wanted independence from England. Rebellion-minded people often chose saffron yellow, and for that reason English officials banned that hue from English dress, so as to tamp down any public displays of support for the Irish.
Weather also plays a significant role in traditional Irish dress. Ireland's ocean climate is generally mild, but sudden rainfall is common, as are strong breezes. Many natives dress in layers that they can shed or add depending on abrupt shifts from hot to cool, wet, and windy.
To that end, the famous Aran sweater poses a sensible solution. Made from water-repelling wool, these sweaters are very breathable but also insulate the wearer nicely when cooler weather sets in. These traits are especially useful for fishermen, who may have worn similar pullover sweaters to bear the weather changes and dampness.
Some of the stitches in Aran sweaters have traditional meanings. For example, the roundish honeycomb stitch is said to symbolize the hard work of the honey bee and the sweetness of the fruits of labor. However, there's no truth to an oft-repeated myth that each family has its own unique sweater stitch patterns.
Contemporary Irish dancers also wear traditional clothes. Female dancers usually wear brightly colored dresses with intricate embroidered patterns, and each school of dancing has its own unique designs. Often, Celtic patterns find their way onto these dresses, and some dancers include a Tara brooch (an elaborate, traditional Irish brooch), in part as a reminder of the artistry of ancient inhabitants of Ireland.
And of course, dance itself is another aspect of Ireland's steadfast vitality. Keep reading, and you'll see that a love of dance is deeply ingrained in Irish culture, too.
Irish culture is steeped in song and dance. Before tourism to the island began booming, in Irish pubs it was common for people to break out in song, and every person in the pub would take a turn singing. In modern (and much more touristy times), these are typically staged performances manufactured for the benefit of foreign visitors.
But traditional Irish music has an actual definition, and no offense to Bono, but it might not include his band. In 1954, the International Folk Music Council set rules for traditional Irish music. Folk music, for example, must display evidence of connecting the present with the past, and must be alive in the community.
That connection is very much on display, thanks in part to a resurgence in traditional Irish music in the 20th century. This renewed interest came about in large part thanks to the country's growing sense of independence and identity.
Traditional music in Ireland, whether it's contemporary or much older, blends elements and instrumentation from other cultures into a distinctly Irish feel and sound. It often embraces English music-hall ditties, and draws in ballroom and polka compositions and sounds, too. Ebullient fiddles contrast with mournful bagpipes. Piano, mandolin, guitars and bouzoukis (a type of lute) add traditional Irish flavor to songs old and new.
And of course, music and singing would be incomplete without an Irish dance. There are several styles of Irish dance, including set dancing, step dancing, and ceili (or social) dances. Ceili dances may include anywhere from two to 16 dancers, often at high-speed, and in a social setting, much like American square dancing.
Riverdance aside, non-natives are often most familiar with Irish step dances, which often feature rapid food movements and patterns that can be danced in limited physical stage space. These are often solo dances and include jigs and reels.
Dancers might wear hard- or soft-soled shoes for these kinds of step dances. In the 1800's, hard shoes often had wooden heels and toes that made loud clicks as the dancer moved, similar to tap dance shoes. These days, hard shoes use mostly fiberglass to create their rhythmic clicks.
The Irish are the subject of some of the most lasting and clichéd stereotypes. In their long history, they’ve been painted as weak and submissive, lazy, uneducated, helpless, and reliant on the kindness of others for their own survival [source: The Society Pages]. As with so many aspects of the human experience, there’s a lot more to the Irish than overgeneralized negative characteristics.
In the diaspora that occurred during the Potato Famine, many of the Irish were pinned as unmotivated and alcoholic, in the United States especially. But the new arrivals struggled just to survive. They competed for low-wage jobs while living in unimaginable squalor. In cities like Boston and New York, they arrived nearly penniless. And they were targeted by unscrupulous landlords who overcharged the immigrants and jammed them into filthy, unsanitary houses with dozens of other impoverished and unemployed souls [source: History Place].
Sixty percent of Irish children born in Boston during the Famine died before the age of six. And hardier adults who managed the trip across the ocean on average lived only about six years before perishing [source: History Place].
The Irish were also stereotyped as drunkards [source: Gershon]. After suffering at the hands of colonial overlords and famine, perhaps it’s no wonder that sometimes they turned to alcohol to drown their sorrows. Even today, Ireland has high per capita alcohol consumption. A WHO report showed that Ireland had the second-highest rate of binge-drinking in the world, just behind Austria. However, when alcohol consumption is looked at on a per capita basis, Ireland comes in at No. 21. Belarus and Moldova are the top two [source: World Atlas].
Ironically, however, as the rest of the world has pegged St. Patrick's Day as a reason to imbibe, those who actually live on the Emerald Isle often celebrate in a much more reserved way. For the faithful, it's a religious day, and as recently as a generation ago, pubs were ordered closed on this day. As Irish culture has continued to spread globally the government has encourage a merrier (and often alcohol-fueled) atmosphere in cities like Dublin to encourage evermore tourism.
The rest of the world revels on St. Patrick's Day, and often in Irish culture in general. And the Irish have certainly created a more positive public image, too. These days, high-tech companies make a point of establishing businesses in Ireland to tap the skilled workforce. And tourism remains a booming business, to the tune of $4.3 billion a year [source: Tourism Ireland].
So for all of the traditions the Irish have established, one may stand out the most -- they've developed the ability to survive and thrive no matter the conditions. Maybe they finally found that leprechaun's hoard after all.
Originally Published: Jul 25, 2011
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