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Food&Mythology: The significance of food and booze on St. Patrick’s Day

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Irish stew (via bbcgoodfood.com)

It’s that time of the year again, and if you’re not having fun from sun up to sun down, you’re doing it wrong. Within the midst of all this partying, however, it’s easy to forget why we celebrate this holiday the way we do. Because believe it or not, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day has nothing to do with St. Patrick at all (nor does it have much to do with green shamrocks and leprechauns, though if you run into one don’t place a bet on gold).  In fact, he wasn’t even Irish!  St. Patrick was a Roman living in Wales when he was kidnapped by Irish raiders. He escaped and later returned to Ireland to convert the pagans to Christianity.

The feasting, the drinking, and the dancing all has to do with pre-Christian Irish custom and the wonderful St. Bridget.

“Hospitality was enormously important in pre-Christian Irish civilization. Even today, if you get lost, in the countryside in Ireland, and you knock on someone’s door and you tell them you’re lost, they will invite you in for tea. There is no such thing as hospitality in Ireland without food,” says Professor Maud McInerney, a medieval studies specialist at Haverford College.

She goes on to explain how in Irish mythology, a lot of miracles have to do with producing mass amounts of food, which brings us to St. Bridget.

St. Bridget’s Story

Now, it’s important to know that there was a saint named Bridget, but she was certainly almost tapping into a pre-existing Irish pagan deity who was known for providing food.

Professor McInerney adding Guinness to butter for a Guinness cake

“There is one legend about St. Bridget,” says Professor McInerney, “in which she was bathing when suddenly her maid runs in and says, ‘Bridget! Bridget! All the bishops in Ireland are here and they want to have a meeting (Bridget was also a female bishop). But there’s no food in the house and I have nothing to serve them!’ Bridget immediately replies, ‘Well here, give them this!’ She jumps out of her bath, and turns the bathwater into beer.”

St. Bridget is also known for giving food and butter to the poor.

There is also another myth of one Irish saint whose student, while fasting, suddenly exclaimed he couldn’t stand it anymore, and wished for food. The Irish saint, whose brother was the king of a nearby area and was having a feast, prayed to God for food. Instantly, the dishes at the king’s feast leapt up and danced their way down the road so the saint’s student could have a bite.

Want a bite to eat? Learn how to make a Guinness Cake. 

So if St. Patrick didn’t have much to do with food at all, why do we celebrate his day like he did?

The Irish Saint 

The simple answer is, because he’s the patron saint of Ireland. But because Irish culture is so invested in feeding people, all the things that have to do with food have become a part of his image. And as for the drinking, well, it’s a way to give thanks.

“In early times the Irish only had two types of alcohol,” says Professor McInerney. “They had beer and meade. If you look at their early mythology, drinking is usually involved. It’s an important part of their culture, like in Greek culture. In the Iliad, for example, you see the characters drinking wine and slaughtering cows (to appease the gods). In Irish mythology, you see the same, except they’re drinking meade.”

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  1. Pingback: A Travelling Medievalist's Blog » Blog Archive » St Patrick’s Day in Halifax

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