Let’s set the record straight: Corned beef and cabbage is an Irish-American favorite. It is NOT a staple in the diet of the Irish (although those potatoes still are). You’d be more likely to have boiled bacon (think Canadian-style, not rashers) and cabbage or something altogether different such as shepherd’s pie, lamb or salmon at an Irish meal.
Why did this meal become associated with March 17—St. Patrick’s Day— in America? Many believe that when Irish immigrants came to the States, they found the salted beef to be cheaper than their real favorite, bacon. Corned beef was more plentiful in the immigrant inner-city neighborhoods some settled in, so it was an easy substitute for struggling families.
Some have also surmised that it was a way to assimilate and avoid the New World stereotype of “as Irish as Paddy’s pig,” a derogatory expression referring to Irish immigrants who kept pigs in their settlements on the outskirts of New York. For example, a news clipping from the New York Times of June 5, 1858, noted that the East Fifties were “densely populated with Irish families and pigs” and continued that it was an area where “the little ones of Celtic and swinish origin lie around miscellaneously with billy goats here and there interspersed.”
It’s more than a bit ironic that a country, in which the Irish were greeted initially by many as sub-human, goes hog-wild celebrating the feast day of their patron saint, pardon the pun. I know that in the case of my family, my ancestors tried to assimilate as quickly as possible when they came over in the 1830s and after the famine. My generation, as a result, has had to excavate the truth of our ethnicity, brushing away the schmaltzy Tin Pan Alley-created “top o’ the mornin’ to ye” stereotype and replacing it authentic music, heritage and even cuisine. We owe a huge debt to The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem who came to our hometown several times in the Seventies and Eighties. Thanks to them, I heard the Irish language—Gaeilge— spoken for the first time. They’d always bring musical guests along, and I’ll never forget when the Furey Brothers joined them once. Finbar Furey played the uilleann pipes, a form of bagpipe played with the elbow compressing the bellows. When I heard that exquisite traditional music for the first time it awakened a genetic memory. I closed my eyes and could see myself walking along a strand on a western shore of Ireland. Ever since that moment, I’ve been on a quest to understand the truth of my ethnicity.
Thanks to Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann—an organization dedicated to the promotion of Irish music, dance and language—I learned the language, various forms of Irish dance and traditional music. Because of Comhaltas, I was able to speak Irish to the customs officer at Shannon Airport as I entered the land of my ancestors for the first time.
As you read 3/17, don’t get me wrong. I hold no grudge toward corned beef (especially the marvellous hash I had at a diner in Jersey City once—sin scéal eile—that’s another story). I do have a problem with the weird, make-believe iconography created about the Irish and St. Patrick’s Day in America.
My one hope is that you’ll find 3/17 a fun serving of food for thought.