Snake bread, green beer and corned beef - traditions of St. Patrick's Day

Johnny Joe Hopkins-County Mayo-Republic of Ireland Mar. 15, 2008, 5:00am

Johnny Joe Hopkins

The movie metaphor for today is the Liam Neeson biopic, "Michael Collins." Not because it has anything directly to bear upon the column, but it is simply a favorite of mine, the best of the Irish themed films, and it keeps with the tradition of "Sidebar."

It deals with the times known simply as the "troubles," and in particular, the story of the "Big Fella," a hero to some, traitor to others. It is a great piece of work by Neeson in the title role, with Julia Roberts in support. Rent it and see for yourself.

Michael P. Flarrerty was on his death bed. His long time, long sufferin' wife Mary Margaret stood by his bedside, offering comfort in his final hours.

"Is there anything that I can do, can get ye that will make you more peaceful?"

"Since you mention it, my darlin', I keep smelling that wonderful ham that you are baking, and if I could just have one slice before I go, I shall die a happy man."

"Oh no," came the reply. "We're savin' that for the wake."

This Monday, the 17th of March, is of course the feast of St. Patrick, the one day a year that every one is Irish, and the true bloods get a chance to strut the stuff of ethic pride. The traditions of the high feast day are many and varied, and more often than not, involve the downing of a pint or two, or perhaps the juice of the barley.

Parades, the first one dating all the way back to 1737 in Boston, form a staple of the celebration wherever Blarney is spoken. On the subject of the Blarney Stone, it is without a doubt one of the great scams of the Western world. Tourists, mostly American - dressed in their Notre Dame gear or green golf shirts, making them so very inconspicuous - stand for hours in a line at Blarney Castle, only to be hung backwards to smooch a tiny rock, known to possess the mythical gift of gab. It is a brilliant piece of Medieval marketing.

The streets of American cities, most notably Chicago and New York, are painted the famous Kelly green, as is the Chicago River, if only for a day.

My erstwhile neighbor and Celtic brother Terry Dooley and I have talked about a similar celebration on Henry Street in Alton, but as of yet, the plan remains only hypothetical. If he remains on the Pledge, it shall die a death of old age. Corned beef and cabbage is served from union halls, VFW's, and the finest of dining establishments.

The color green is everywhere, in a fashion kaleidoscope of gaudiness and brassiness. "Kiss me, I'm Irish" is the coin of the realm, not just the phrase of the day. The clans gather together to share a meal, reinforce traditions, and to rekindle the common spirit of a shared culture.

In the Hopkins house, we always go to Columbia, Ill., the home of my parents on the Sunday before St. Pat's Day.

It is a gathering of brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and the IBM's - "Irish By Marriage."

The menu is part of the tradition - green bread, green potatoes, green ice cubes, green cake, and of course, two kinds of corned beef, boiled and baked.

My father always gets bread, green of course, in the shape of a snake, to commemorate the legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. While such a story has been a long time staple of Irish folk lore, in truth, there never were any snakes in the Emerald Isle.

Closer to home, on the 17th I always wear a traditional outfit, complete with shamrock tie, the green Irish walking hat, the Tip O'Neill lapel carnation, and the cuff links direct from "Hopkins and Sons, Jewelers" - Dublin. I knew we were cousins when I asked for a family discount, and he refused.

For several days at the office, we fly the Irish flag, have the Irish tenors on the hold music, and have the lucky Leprechaun out on the reception desk. At home, we play the Clancy Brothers in Concert or what my daughter Bridget calls "the motor car song," both loud and often.

Ireland is a land of poets and scholars, of myths and legends, of the economic "Celtic Tiger," of true links golf, radiant sunshine, soft rains and melancholy mist. It is the motherland of the Aherns, the clan of my dear wife, and the Hopkins', who came from County Mayo in the great exodus of the famine of the 1840s.

I have been to her shores twice -once with the whole family including my red-haired sister Marie, and once with my two sons in the golf trip of a life time, one in which we truly did get "respected."

If a drop of Irish blood flows through ye, then the sound of the Chieftains moves your soul, the wail of the bag pipes stirs the heart and the sound of "Danny Boy" brings a tear to the eye.

Monday is your day, shared with the world, but truly possessed by those in the clan. It is the day to find a skilled bar man, one who knows how to pour a proper pint of Guinness, topped off with a shamrock in the foam.

Have a safe, and reasonably sober St. Patrick's Day. Share an Irish joke with a co-worker. They are abundant -- and even clean ones can be found, although clearly the better ones need an "R" rating.

Equally abundant are Irish blessings, perhaps the most famous one follows:

"May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
The rain fall softly on your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand."

More News