March 17th was a special day in our home when I was growing up in Toronto. Since my granddad was from Belfast, my mother always made sure to commemorate St. Patrick’s Day with Irish stew and a delicious cake with green icing for dessert. She whipped up these favorites to honour her father and the Emerald Isle. Taking it a step further, these days many pubs serve green beer. In Philadelphia, where there is a strong Irish population and where I lived for a short time, egg-sized white candies called Irish Potatoes lined grocery store shelves in March.

Over the years, I have learned that St. Patrick’s Day is a bigger celebration in North America than it is in Ireland. Perhaps that is because so many Irish immigrants, now into their second and third generations, are filled with nostalgia for the ‘old country.’ Or perhaps they just want an excuse to celebrate their roots.

Almost four million Canadians have Irish heritage, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. Many politicians fit this demographic, including Father of Confederation Thomas D’Arcy McGee, former senator Eugene Whelan, former prime minister Brian Mulroney and former premier of Québec Jean Charest.

Researching this article, I was surprised to learn the strongest Irish-Canadian connections are in Québec. Although ‘La Belle Province’ has a majority of Francophones, 40 per cent of the population claims Irish ancestry.  This was because for a long time Canada’s port of entry was Québec City. Many Irish immigrants, tired of travelling, ended up settling in the area.

The Irish began coming to Canada in the 17th century, but the big influx was in the 1840s during the Great Famine. Approximately two million people left Ireland and hundreds of thousands came to British North America. Many died of starvation and disease on the ‘coffin ships’ before they even landed. Those who survived provided the cheap labour that fueled the country’s economic growth in the 1850s and ‘60s. Perservering, as many immigrants have done since, they went on to be active in all levels of society.

These days people of Irish origin are scattered throughout Canada. Many are settled in Ontario as well as the Maritimes, Newfoundland and Labrador. My granddad didn’t come until 1922 and he headed up to Northern Ontario where he worked as head electrician for a gold mine.

St. Patrick’s Day is probably the best-known tradition the Irish brought to Canada, and commemorates a saint who symbolizes freedom, forgiveness and love. Parades and ceilidhs (social gatherings with music and food) are presented in many communities, including Montreal which boasts North America’s oldest St. Patrick’s Day parade. This is its 194th year!

St. Patrick was not originally Irish. He was born in Britain in 385 AD but was kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. During his six years of enslavement, he found solace in prayer. When he escaped to Gaul, he took on the name Patricius and studied with St. Germain. Later he returned to the island and worked to convert the pagan population to Christianity. To explain the holy Trinity of father, son and holy spirit, legend has it he used three-leafed clovers or shamrocks. He is also attributed with driving all snakes off the island. This is probably a metaphorical reference since snakes are symbols of paganism. Patricius died on March 17, 461. Since then shamrocks and the color green have been associated with St. Patrick’s Day. Leprechauns, magical little men (like fairies) who wear green hats and buckled shoes are also associated with shamrocks, but instead rare, four-leaf versions which are considered very lucky. It is said they hide their gold in a pot at the end of a rainbow. Sometimes you’ll see these symbols at casino slot machines or promoting lotteries. I have found the occasional four-leaf shamrock and seen many a rainbow in my travels in Canada and Ireland, but unfortunately I have yet to see a leprechaun or find a pot of gold.

St. Patrick’s Day in Canada tends to be a time when anybody, with even a hint of Irish in their blood wears green and heads to the pub to hoist a pint of beer. They may not be celebrating St. Patrick himself, but rather the determined Irish spirit that overcame adversity and helped build our country.

IRISH-CANADIAN EVENTS

Vancouver, March 18: Annual CelticFest Ceildh, held at St. Mary’s Ukranian Cultural Centre featuring local musicians and cash bar.

Toronto, March 17: St. Patrick’s Day Parade with floats and bands starts at noon at Bloor and St. George Streets and winds up at Nathan Philips Square. stpatrickstoronto.com

Montreal, March 19: Led by Grand Marshal Mayor Denis Coderre, the St. Patrick’s starts at noon at the corner of Fort and St. Catherine Streets. montrealirishparade.com

 

RECIPES

IRISH STEW, from Epicurious.com

Ingredients
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/4 lbs. stew beef, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 6 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 8 cups beef stock or canned beef broth
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. dried thyme
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp. (1/4 stick) butter
  • 3 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 7 cups)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cups 1/2-inch pieces peeled carrots
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
Preparation
    1. Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat.
    2. Add beef and sauté until brown on all sides, about 5 minutes.
    3. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute. Add beef stock, tomato paste, sugar, thyme, Worcestershire sauce and bay leaves.
    4. Stir to combine. Bring mixture to boil.
    5. Reduce heat to medium-low, then cover and simmer 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
    6. Meanwhile, melt butter in another large pot over medium heat.
    7. Add potatoes, onion and carrots.
    8. Sauté vegetables until golden, about 20 minutes.
    9. Add vegetables to beef stew.
    10. Simmer uncovered until vegetables and beef are very tender, about 40 minutes.
    11. Discard bay leaves.
    12. Tilt pan and spoon off fat. (Can be prepared up to 2 days ahead. Cool slightly. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover and refrigerate. Bring to simmer before serving.)
    13. Transfer stew to serving bowl. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

 

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Maureen LittleJohn
Maureen Littlejohn is Culture Magazin's executive editor. She is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. Currently based in Toronto, she has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine's readers.