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The Story Behind St. Patrick

Irish American Heritage Museum
Elizabeth Stack
The Irish American Heritage Museum is at 370 Broadway in Albany, New York.

St. Patrick’s Day is March 17, commemorating the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. WAMC’s Jesse King visited Albany’s Irish American Heritage Museum to learn more about the holiday. 

Elizabeth Stack, Executive Director of Albany’s Irish American Heritage Museum, says the actual St. Patrick was a Welsh or Roman slave, kidnapped and brought to Ireland to tend to pigs. 

“He eventually managed to escape and go home to Wales, but while he was there he had these dreams about the Irish people crying and saying that they needed him. And he was visited by God," Stack explains. "And so he actually voluntarily came back to Ireland and became the patron saint of Ireland. He Christianized and converted a lot of the high kings using, of course, the very famous symbol, the shamrock, to explain the Divine Trinity – that there was three in one.”

St. Patrick is said to have died on March 17, 461 – hence the date of St. Patrick’s Day. The holiday was established as a Christian feast day, and St. Patrick became a symbol of Catholicism. When Britain took over Ireland and established Protestant rule, however, Irish Catholics were consistently discriminated against. Stack says Irish immigrants in the 19th century also faced discrimination in the U.S.  

“So the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, all of these different orders decided that they would march on St. Patrick’s Day to show that the Irish were actually good immigrants – that they had assimilations, that they could contribute to American society, and that being a good and faithful Catholic didn’t mean they couldn’t be a good Republican, you know, Democrat," says Stack. 

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City was held about 285 years ago, while Irish communities in Albany started leading parades in 1950. It is also celebrated with parades and festivals in Ireland, but Stack says there’s a certain flair to the American versions.   

“They’re very conscious of displaying the awesomeness of the numbers, and the power that – you know, fireman, cops, army personnel, sanitation workers...It was to show how much of a backbone of the city structure, you know, that the Irish workers were," she explains. 

There are other ways people recognize the day – whether it be with food, Irish dance and music, or simply by wearing green. The day is also often associated with drinking, but Stack says that’s more stereotype than reality in Ireland.

“The Irish are actually one of the most temperate countries in the world, and not many people know that," she notes. "There’s been a huge abstinence program from drink since the 1800s under Father Theobald Mathew, and so an awful lot of Irish people don’t actually drink.”

The Irish American Heritage Museum will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with food, music and a new Celtic art exhibit. The museum moved to Albany seven years ago, and has a number of donated artifacts. Stack showed me a prayer box from the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, with small circular jetons used in services to recognize deceased sisters. 

“It’s a two-sided box, and you take it from one side and put it into the other," she demonstrates. "And over the course of the year, all of the nuns will have been prayed for in memoriam.”

Irish American Heritage Museum
Credit Elizabeth Stack
A permanent exhibit on Irish immigration to the U.S. features trunks filled with Irish clothing.

A permanent exhibit looks at Irish immigration to America. Stack showed me trunks of Irish clothing and musical instruments, including a trunk that belonged to the grandmother of a local resident.

“And every time I look at the trunk I just think, ‘How did a young’ – I think she was 19 – ‘How did she carry this?'" says Stack. "But at the same time, if someone told me that I was leaving forever, I could fill a hundred of those. And so it’s very difficult, I think, to look at. I always say, ‘If these trunks could talk, it’d be amazing,’ you know?”

As the availability of DNA kits and ancestry services have more and more people digging into their family history, Stack is hopeful the museum will continue to grow, with its monthly film nights, jam sessions, and genealogy lectures.

“You know, I always say our tagline is ‘It’s your heritage – pass it on,’ but it’s a living. It’s not just the past, it’s a living, breathing culture," Stack smiles. "I’m always amazed at the number of Irish Americans who learn Irish dancing and Irish music, and even people who are learning how to speak the language. It’s very, very heartwarming.”

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."