Luck of the Irish

Rebecca Mohr

Old and new world traditions combine to create a uniquely American holiday

Green, lush, old-fashioned and quaint are the images that Americans usually conjure up when asked to describe Ireland. The country and its people are much more than that, and St. Patrick’s Day is the perfect time to learn about Irish culture and the meaning of the phrase “the luck of the Irish.”

Many Americans have not had the chance to visit, let alone live in, a beautiful country such as Ireland. English professor Don-John Dugas had the opportunity to attend Trinity College in Dublin for four years.

“It is a very modern country,” Dugas said. “Not at all like the movies. American perception is that Ireland got lost in time. I’m not sure an Ireland even existed the way Americans like to think about it. An American parallel would be Williamsburg, Va. – trying to recreate a culture that has past.”

Ireland’s past begins in the fifth century with a man named Patrick.

“The whole story begins with St. Patrick coming to Ireland to convert the pagans to Catholicism. He was trying to explain the trinity, so he picks up a weed and explains using a shamrock,” Dugas said. “The shamrock became a missionary symbol for his holiday and Irish identity.”

Sarah Gilbert, sophomore electronic media management major, said she believes that a shamrock is considered lucky.

“I believe in the phrase ‘the luck of the Irish’ because I’m Irish,” Gilbert said. “Somewhere along the line, the shamrock became a symbol of luck.”

The Irish reserve the shamrock as their national symbol.

“On St. Patrick’s Day, people decorate themselves and everything else with clumps of shamrocks. A man will put a shamrock in his lapel pocket,” Dugas said. “It has been used in teaching and the shamrock is part of their cultural heritage.”

In America St. Patrick’s Day may be an excuse to drink, but Americans have imported the holiday from Ireland.

“There is no separation of church and state (in Ireland). St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday,” Dugas said. “It’s a day break from Lent. There are 39 other days during Lent in which adults do not drink alcohol and children do not eat candy. On St. Patrick’s Day adults are in the bars and children stuff themselves with candy.”

Many Americans think of the Irish as lucky, Dugas said, but the Irish think otherwise.

“The Irish tend to describe themselves as unlucky,” he said. “I think the phrase ‘the luck of the Irish’ came from Irish immigrants coming over to America and being successful.”

Irish literature defines the cultural Irish norm as unlucky.

“American literature is very optimistic,” Dugas said. “Irish literature, such as that written by James Joyce, tends to be pessimistic.”

Joyce’s most famous work, “Ulysses,” was published in 1922 and parallels to Homer’s “The Odyssey.” The book was originally banned from the United States because of its obscenities.

Although the literature is pessimistic, Dugas said the Irish people are generally the opposite.

“The Irish are fun, loving and incredibly sociable,” Dugas said. “They welcome almost anybody.”

Whether students believe in Irish luck or not, the phrase “the luck of the Irish” still exists.

“I don’t believe in the phrase because luck is too determined by the beholder,” said Jake Williams, sophomore computer design and animation major.

Luck is a tricky thing – are the Irish more lucky or do you find your own luck?

“Personally I don’t believe in the phrase ‘the luck of the Irish’ because I’m not Irish,” said Nicole Gates, junior fine arts major. “I like what the character Two-Face in ‘Batman’ says that you make your own luck.”

Contact feature correspondent Rebecca Mohr at [email protected].