Beyond green bagels, pub specials and Erin go Bragh

Jenny Dwoskin

St. Patrick’s Day is more than just green bagels and beer. It’s a celebration of Irish culture, an unusual yet enchanting culture which is often misunderstood by most parade-going “Irish for a Day” kind of folks.

For the record, bagels didn’t originate on the Emerald Isle. Sure, Mr. Goldstein at the bagel shop sports a nametag reading “Mr. McGoldstein” every March 17, but keep in mind that he’s only being festive. Guinness, on the other hand, did in fact originate in Dublin — though people are rarely surprised to hear this factoid, which brings up a problem: non-Irishmen have trouble seeing beyond the foam-cap of their pints and never indulge in the magic — what Ireland’s truly all about.

If one were to characterize the Irish people with one adjective, it would have to be diverse, for their identity cannot be traced back to one single influence. Ireland served as a blank canvas, so to speak, a canvas upon which Celtic, Viking and Spanish invaders splashed their distinct customs and through this interfusion a unique culture was created.

The Celts, above all, had perhaps the greatest influence. They were the invaders, a blonde and blue-eyed race originating in regions around France and Germany, who were driven out by the Romans in 700 B.C. The Celts were notorious for gruesome battles, an immeasurable roster of Pagan dieties and even the most chilling of animal and human sacrifice. They were athletic and engaged in their own games of hurling, a lacrosse-like sport which is practiced in the United States at Gaelic Stadium in the Bronx. Rough and fast paced, it consists of a ball called a sliotar being run up and down a field by players carrying large sticks called hurleys.

Yet, there was one thing that the Celts loved more than fighting, sport and worship: storytelling, the art responsible for the magic, and the art so prized by its people. The Irish, even today, adore mythology, legend, and romance — even a trip to the market becomes a literary sketch bursting with imagery, hyperbole and even a dialogue complete with fitting voice portrayal.

The myths encompass everything from rogues to the sirens. Some of the most intriguing of the stories are those concerning faeries, but don’t be fooled, for these faeries aren’t the same fairies that grace American folktales. Celtic faeries ride horses, compete against other faeries for potato prizes and even seduce young brides-to-be. There are good and evil faeries, woodland sprites, aquatic nymphs and the famed leprechauns who serve to protect the gold of Ireland from Viking invaders.

After St. Patrick drove the Pagans, or the “snakes” out of Ireland (the snake is a popular Pagan symbol and the legend hails St. Patrick for spreading Christianity), one would think that the faerie lore would vanish, but, it is still ever-present. Banshees are an example of faeries that have persevered through the Catholic transformation. A banshee is a harbinger of death and an Irish family often hears a piercing screech preceding the passing of a loved one. Even today, people in Ireland will testify to having heard the call of a banshee.

If you happen to visit Ireland some day, it will be blatantly obvious that the Celts never integrated with the Romans — just observe the construction of their roads! The country roads in Ireland are extremely convoluted, winding around Hawthorne trees, a preferred dwelling of faeries. According to superstition, if one were to cut down a Hawthorne tree, he or she would experience bad luck.

If only Mr. Goldstein and the parade-going “Irish for a Day” folks knew about the magic, maybe they would eat that green bagel and quaff Guinness with a little more reverence and respect for what the Irish culture is truly about — history, cultural pride and storytelling.