When half-Irish eyes are smiling

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 12, 2003

One of my favorite pictures from childhood is one of my younger brother and I sitting on a piano bench wearing matching green shirts that read, "When Irish eyes are smiling, they're up to something."

My brothers and I inherited our mother's large, dark eyes. I have always been proud of my Irish ancestry and I loved that T-shirt.

I'm only half-Irish, but my parents would give us stickers or pins to wear to school on St. Patrick's Day. Eventually I became too self-conscious to wear the shamrock pin that said, "Kiss me, I'm Irish" for fear I would be ridiculed.

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I'm also proud of my Norwegian ancestry. I inherited my father's blond hair, but for some reason Syttende Mai has never caught on as a nationally-recognized holiday. (Syttende Mai, translated as the 17th of May, was the day in 1814 that the Kingdom of Norway declared independence from Denmark after 400 years of Danish control. It's now recognized as the day Norway was liberated.)

St. Patrick was known for converting pagans in Ireland to Christianity. He died on March 17, 461, and that day has been celebrated in his honor in the Catholic Church ever since.

Today it is much less a religious holiday, than a day filled with green rivers, leprechauns and pots of gold -- none of which have much to do with the intention of the holiday.

But it's all in good fun. I wondered, though, what those symbols meant and why they're associated with the holiday. The History Channel helped me figure this out:


Legend has it that St. Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity, but this hasn't been proven. It also was considered a sacred plant in ancient Ireland and symbolized the rebirth of spring. I used to search my yard for the infamous four-leaf clover, but had no such luck.


Leprechauns probably originated in ancient Celtic folklore and were known as cranky creatures who fixed shoes for other fairies and played tricks. They have nothing to do with St. Patrick, but can been seen on most St. Patrick's Day decorations, cards and promotions. Rumor has it an Austin Daily Herald reporter's husband looks like one, but I have yet to meet him.

Corned beef and cabbage

It has always been a traditional Irish dish, but didn't become part of the holiday until the turn of the century. Personally, I've never had it and I much prefer green-frosted, shamrock-shaped sugar cookies for a St. Paddy's Day treat.

Irish music

Music was once a way for the Irish to pass on its traditions and stories after speaking their native language was banned by the English. But it got everyone so riled up, eventually music was also outlawed. I began to appreciate Irish music when I saw bands perform at The Dubliner in St. Paul. Nights out there would inevitably lead to requests for "Dirty Old Town."

Green beer

Pubs in Ireland were actually closed in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day until the 1970s because it was a strictly religious occasion. But in 1995, the Irish government began to promote the holiday as a tourist attraction and last year one million people participated the St. Patrick's Day Festival in Dublin. I have never tried green beer. I did, however, see the Chicago River in all its green glory in March one year.

My favorite part of Irish folklore, though, is its humor. My parents used to have an "Irish Prayer" hanging in the house and it always made me smile. Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone!

"May those who love us, love us; and those who don't love us, may God turn their hearts; and if He doesn't turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we'll know them by their limping."

--Author unknown

Cari Quam can be reached at 434-2235 or by e-mail at :mailto:cari.quam@austindailyherald.com