Happy Saint Patrick’s Day: Slainte Mhaith!

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day 2009! The celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day is always a welcome event in the McNichol Family’s calendar. Of course the prefix “Mc” would most likely give a clue to the reason. But there really is more to the celebration than just honoring the saint_patricks_cathedral_catholic_armagh_stained_glass_o1.jpgpatron saint of the Irish Island. It is a day to celebrate the remarkable achievements the millions of Irish emigrants that came to the United States in multiple migrations and became a densely woven part of the American fabric.
Most people think the big influx of Irish expatriates came to the United States as part of the solution of the Great Potato Famine in the 19th century. While millions indeed came to the United States during this period, the Irish were already firmly rooted in American life from the first expeditionary voyage to Plymouth and Jamestown. Part of the groups that sought religious freedom from persecution, for both Catholic and Protestant faith, our Irish forefathers were part of the events of the American Revolution, the Civil War and all subsequent military conflicts to the present day. In the 19th century, Irish historian, Jay Dolan tells us that as many as 49 ships per week arrived and departed from Philadelphia to Ireland bringing emigrants to the United States. Of course during the 19th and 20th centuries, Philadelphia Irish were more in number than the entire population of Ireland. They integrated into American political and social life and quickly became the blue collar workforce that fueled the industrial revolution, the political mavericks that manipulated municipal governments and the clerical juggernauts that doctrinally ruled American Catholicism. Most of the familiar institutions of civil service were staffed by foreign born Irish as they assimilated into the great melting pot of American society. Policemen, firemen and Catholic clergy were most abundant with Irish roots and in some places the last generations of the descendants of the 19th century Irish Americans still cling to positions of that nature. My own father, grandfather and great-grandfather were Gaelic members of the police line in Philadelphia. Some of my cousins continue the police tradition to this day, now serving as FBI, Pennsylvania State Police and so on.
There is an intrinsic thankfulness that I have for my Irish-Catholic roots in the colorful history of the Philadelphia Irish. While I cannot claim a pure thoroughbred status to Ireland, my composite genetic quilt is mixed with McNichols, McNallys, Kilrains, Greys and Dicks.
Having been the product of an Irish Catholic ethnic enclave of Gray’s Ferry in Philadelphia, I fondly remember Saint Patrick’s Day at Saint Gabriel Parish. There were some daring gradeschool classmates that dyed their hair green on March 17th. The local “tap-rooms” served green beer. Irish soda bread was baked at the German run bakery in the heart of South Philadelphia. Almost as an institutional badge of honor, even the parochial rules were abrogated and we were permitted to wear something green with our school uniforms on the day of Patrick. If the day even dared to fall on a Friday, there was a dispensation to eat meat and postpone the piscatorial meal until the following week.
Usually at Saint Gabriel’s Parish there was a “Beef and Beer” with plenty of both gustatory ingredients, accompanied by some sort of traditional Irish music and dancing. While the population of Irish-Catholics is dwindling in my old neighborhood, it is still a day of celebration and ethnic pride for the waves of Gray’s Ferry residents that hailed from the shores of the Emerald Island. There is still, Dean’s Bar in Gray’s Ferry at 29th and Tasker, which surely will lift a few bottles to commemorate Saint Patrick, the Easter Rebellion, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and just about any other patriotic and Irish ethnic event one could imagine. I have never been inside Dean’s Bar, however I went to school with Mr.Dean’s children and his son still runs the public house until this day. Perhaps some Saint Patrick’s Day I will get up to 29th and Tasker to hoist a beer or two. In the meanwhile, Slainte Mhaith to my ethnic Irish compatriots. Have a great Saint Patrick’s Day!

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