St. Patrick’s Day— a day full of shamrocks, ancient lore, leprechauns, and the color green. It’s full of Irish revelry… or is it? How much of St. Paddy’s Day hails from the Emerald Isle, and how much is an American phenomenon that spread across the world? What’s the real history? More importantly, how can you get in on the action (especially with kids)? Here are a few fantastic ideas on how to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Arkansas with your wee leprechauns.
The Real St. Patrick
You’ve heard that St. Patrick supposedly banished the snakes from Ireland and is responsible for bringing Christianity to the Emerald Isle, among other miracles. For such a famous person, with so many tantalizing tales associated with him, the real St. Patrick is shrouded in mystery. Much of his actual life is unknown. We aren’t even sure about his date of birth or death. What we do know fairly certainly is that his rise to fame in Ireland was an unlikely one.
In the early fifth century, the young Englishman was kidnapped by Irish pirates. Patrick was the son of a wealthy landowner and not from a particularly religious family. He was just sixteen years old when he was taken, and he worked as a slave in Ireland for the next six years before engineering his escape. You would think that he would hate that place, but his time in Ireland reportedly cultivated a soft heart in him for the pagan worshippers there. According to the History Channel, Patrick spent 15 years studying and earning his priesthood before returning to Ireland with the mission of ministering to current believers (he didn’t actually introduce Christianity to Ireland) and converting the Celts.
While he didn’t banish the snakes, and he may or may not have used a clover to explain the Holy Trinity, the fact remains that St. Patrick was very successful in spreading the message of Christianity. He was familiar with the Celtic language and traditions, and he incorporated many of them into Christian worship on the island. He is credited with the invention of the Celtic cross, as he superimposed the sun over the Christian cross to help his converts understand. It was an effective method.
According to varied sources, approximately 80% of the current nation of Ireland considers themselves Roman Catholic. Though he is the patron “saint” of Ireland, St. Patrick was never actually canonized by the Catholic church. That’s because canonization was not a process until 993. St. Patrick is thought to have passed away on March 17th, 461 A.D.
The History of St. Patrick’s Day
You’ve no doubt been told that “St. Patrick’s Day isn’t even celebrated in Ireland.” Well, I can tell you from personal experience that is a bunch of rubbish. Parades of school children, traditional dancing, and drunken locals abound in pretty much every area of Ireland on March 17th, as well as traditional church services honoring their patron saint, all of which I have attended.
In fact, St. Paddy’s Day has been celebrated for more than 1,000 years in Ireland. The original celebrations were more along the lines of a Catholic holy feast, so there were no giant parades, green Bud light, or pinching, but there was plenty of celebrating. Catholics would generally attend mass, then prepare a hearty family meal of cabbage and bacon, topped off with traditional dancing. The Feast Day of St. Patrick is traditionally celebrated during Lent, which made it a more solemn affair in the 9th -10th century when it began. The holiday was validated by the Vatican in 1631 as an official Catholic feast day.
The Modern Version
The first modern St. Patrick’s Day Parade was indeed founded in North America by Irish immigrants, either in New York City in 1762 or St. Augustine Florida in 1601. It’s debatable. Reportedly, a few homesick Irish soldiers were serving in the American Revolutionary War and decided to start a little celebration. All the silly traditions like pinching, green river dye, leprechauns, and shamrock shakes are American inventions, based on different segments of Irish folklore.
Major events like the Irish Potato Famine and the Time of Troubles ushered in massive numbers of Irish immigrants to the United States. Their poor living conditions and exile from their homeland caused immigrants to rally around one another, and an upsurge in Irish pride occurred. In American cities like Chicago, Boston, and NYC 18th and 19th-century immigrants celebrated the holiday with increasing enthusiasm. They took the little parade of the soldiers and expanded upon it, creating the St. Paddy’s Day traditions we see today.
The Irish in Arkansas
Arkansas has a strong Irish heritage! The first wave of Scots-Irish immigrants came in the earthy 18th century. They were Ulster-Protestants who settled mostly in Tennessee and Kentucky. When the cotton boom occurred in the early 1800s, the descendants of these original settlers went west looking for riches. They settled in the Ozark Mountains, as it reminded them most of their homes farther east. Others settled in the Ouachita Mountains in Southern Arkansas for the same reason.
The second wave of settlers took place in 1839 when a group of Quakers from New Jersey migrated South. They were led by Harris Flanagin, who became the Confederate governor of the state in 1862. They settled near Little Rock. More Irish settlers crossed during the Great Famine in Ireland, led by Patrick Cleburne, a pharmacist from County Cork, Ireland.
These migrations made an impact, but the largest Irish immigrant group to Arkansas came courtesy of the Roman Catholic Church in 1850. Prior settlers had been Protestants of the Scots-Irish persuasion, but there was a small congregation of Irish Catholics in Little Rock, and Father Thomas Hore from County Wexford wanted to grow that population. He sent 300 Gaelic Irish settlers to the area. They entered through New Orleans and sailed up the Mississippi River to Little Rock initially. Many eventually spread out to Texas, Missouri, and Fort Smith, AR.
The last major immigration occurred in the 1980s. The United States suffered from a massive shortage of nurses, and that was something Ireland had in spades! These ladies married and settled in to raise families in Central Arkansas. To maintain their heritage, they formed the Irish Cultural Society of Arkansas in 1996 (more on that later).
How to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Arkansas
Okay, now that you’ve got a firm grasp of what we’re celebrating, let’s get to the fun stuff!
1. Play St. Patrick trivia.
Do some more research on the real St. Patrick and create your own trivia game! Choose a family member to read out the questions, and give everyone an answer sheet. After your traditional dinner, turn on some Irish music, read out the questions, and see who gets the most correct answers. The winner gets a themed prize of your choice!
2. Make your own shamrock shake.
Okay, so this one originally comes from McDonald’s, but it’s tradition now. Drive through Micky-D’s or make your own Shamrock Shake with Arkansas-based Yarnell’s vanilla ice cream! Just blend ice cream, mint extract (not peppermint), 10 drops of green food coloring, and a splash of whole milk in your blender. Top with your choice of whipped cream, sprinkles, or Maraschino cherries. Parents feel free to make yours a boozy shamrock with the addition of a little Jameson.
3. Go hunting for four-leafed clovers.
In Irish tradition, the four leaves of the clover represent faith, hope, love, and luck. In Arkansas, the weather is usually warm, and the clovers have sprung by March 17th, so go out and see how many you can find. Then, press them in a scrapbook or make leaf-rubbing art pieces out of them!
4. Dance to traditional Irish music.
There are several amazing YouTube tutorials on Irish step dancing. Pick one that you like, and get your jig on with your crew.
5. Wear green from head to toe.
Wearing green is probably the most common St. Patrick’s Day tradition. Forget wearing one green thing this year. See if you can dress from head to toe in nothing but green!
6. Organize a community scavenger hunt.
Gather a few friends, and create your own St. Patrick’s Day scavenger hunt. You could hide chocolate gold coins or Celtic crosses at each participant’s house or in several places in one neighborhood. Let the kiddos pair up and give them their first clue. Have an adult at each site to hand them their next clue. The winners get a basket of gold coins!
7. Attend the shortest annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the world.
The world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade occurs on Bridge Street in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The 98-foot parade is a huge event, attended by people from all over the world. It features celebrity emcees, famous performers, live music, and tons of tasty Irish treats! It’s one of the best places to celebrate the holiday in the state. Check out their website for 2024 specifics.
8. Attend an event held by the Irish Cultural Society of Arkansas.
The ICSA is the premier association for preserving Irish American Heritage in Arkansas. They host a series of events throughout the year and are a fantastic resource for educational information. They are located in Little Rock and are responsible for the capital’s large St. Patrick’s Day Parade and accompanying festivities. If you live in Central Arkansas, the parade is a must!
9. Cook a traditional St. Paddy’s Day meal.
Eating corned beef, Irish soda bread, and a shamrock cookie is a must! Check out this amazing soda bread recipe, and don’t forget to drink green apple juice or add some food coloring to your favorite brew to increase the festivity. Go all out with a few decorations too. Decorating will give the kiddos something to do while you cook.
10. Get crafty.
From leprechaun hats made from popsicle sticks to paper-clover garland for your fancy dinner, the options are numerous! PureWow has a great list of easy art projects for your wee ones.
12. Jam out to Van Morrison.
Introduce your grandkids to the music of your past with a rock and roll dance party set to the tunes of Irish folk singer, Van Morrison!
13. Create an Irish blessing.
Blessings are a staple in Irish culture, and you can create your own as gifts for family and friends. Grab some craft paper or canvas boards from your local craft store, and gather the paint pens. Make your own blessings or make copies of traditional Irish ones.
“May the grace of God’s protection
And His great love abide
Within your home and within the hearts
Of all who dwell inside.”Unknown
14. Research your Gaelic name.
If you have Irish heritage, you may choose to do a deep dive into your family history for St. Patrick’s Day by creating a family tree or having your DNA traced. If you want to keep it simple, look up the Gaelic version of your names, and call each other by that version all day. You may need name tags to help you remember!
15. Have a limerick writing competition.
Limericks are a lighthearted and fun way to celebrate Irish heritage. They are short poems consisting of three long lines and two short adhering to the rhyming scheme aabba. Here’s an example:
“There was an Old Man of Kilkenny,unknown
who never had more than a penny.
He spent all that money
on onions and honey,
That wayward Old Man of Kilkenny.”
16. End with a St. Patrick’s Day movie.
There are a few traditional Irish movies that are appropriate for the kiddos, although they do have some mystical themes that you may or may not want to expose your children to, so make sure to watch them first. Wolfwalkers and Secret of the Kells are animated films that your family might like. If you like scary movies, you could always go with The Leprechaun, and if you have older children, Wild Mountain Thyme is a great movie. Of course, you’ll need some green popcorn!
Closing Thoughts on How to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Arkansas
Now that you’ve got a clear idea of how to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Arkansas, it’s time to start collecting your green clothing, craft ideas, and traditional Irish foods! Whether you have any Irish heritage or not, St. Patrick’s Day is a wonderful holiday to celebrate with your clan. It’s historical, provides interesting and fun educational opportunities, and you get to gorge on tasty treats! What could be better? Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with gusto this year and attend one of the unique Arkansas events or do it up right with an at-home day full of Irish-themed events. You can’t really go wrong when it comes to St. Paddy’s Day. Have fun with it and do it your way!
For more Arkansas events and adventures, check out our full list of Natural State blogs!
Erin go Bragh!