Photograph from Smithsonian.com
The following is my March 2013 Fresh Perspective column from Kingston This Week
When I was a little girl living in the North of England, we didn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The conflict in Northern Ireland was just a little too close to home at that time.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Canada that I even heard of Saint Patrick. For several years, I was the only child in my class not dressed in green to mark the day. By the time I’d gone through a few St. Patrick’s Days – I left home dressed in my usual clothes – but arrived at school wearing a friend’s green T-shirt and sporting a huge green satin Christmas ribbon in my long, blonde ponytail. I took it all off before I returned home. My Irish propensities went right back into the closet.
In high school, I learned about Oliver Cromwell and the Irish Potato Famine, and the Irish revolts against the often brutal British rule of Ireland. I heard my English father arguing with George, his closest friend, an Irishman, about the rights and wrongs on both sides.
I loved my Irish “Uncle” George – with his mop of ginger hair, his freckles, and his fiercely bright eyes. He came for dinner regularly, always bringing me chocolate and calling me Little-Flower. I loved his beautiful lilting Irish accent, his ability to eat potatoes like no one else I’d ever seen, and the way he took 16 teaspoons of sugar in his strong, black tea, counting them all out loud before stirring his tea vigorously and then slurping it down piping hot, sighing aloud with each swallow.
Somewhere along the way, I learned about the 1916 uprising that led to the formation of the Republic of Ireland in the south of the island, while the six counties of Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. From the 1960s through the 1990s it was these six counties in the North where the often violent conflict played out primarily between the Protestant loyalists and the Catholic unionists.
Thankfully for all, in 1998, a peace agreement was signed by the opposing factions in Northern Ireland and things have been largely stable since then. Saint Patrick, who was credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland in the 4th Century, must be resting a little easier these days.
St. Patrick’s Day was made an official feast day in the seventeenth century. The date marks the anniversary of the death of St. Patrick on 17 March, 461, and was established to commemorate the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.
St. Patrick, who was born in Britain (not Ireland) is said to have taught the Pagan Irish population about the Christian Holy Trinity using the traditional shamrock – hence the prevalence of green and shamrocks to mark the day. But those early origins have been mostly lost and St. Patrick’s Day has become a worldwide celebration of Irishness and Irish culture – usually marked with a lot of revelry and excess alcohol consumption.
The truth is – a feast – and not green beer, is actually the traditional way of marking the day.
My Uncle George would have loved this rich Irish stew with its Guinness gravy. He would have eaten it over a mountain of well-buttered, mashed potatoes or Colcannon – potatoes mashed with either kale or fried cabbage. The he might have had “just a wee slice of dessert” while he drank his scalding, sugar-saturated tea and passionately defended the Irish to my father.
My Uncle George died young and my father followed not many years after. This year, I’m honouring the memory of them with a Saint Patrick’s Day feast which they both would have loved.
Irish or not – Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Beef and Guinness Stew
(adapted from a recipe begged from my dear (former) neighbour, Susan Tyerman)
3 tbsp olive oil
3-4 lbs stewing beef cut in large cubes (I usually cut a large roast into 2 inch cubes)
2 large onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, mashed
3-4 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 440ml can Guinness
2 tsp dried thyme (or 1 tbsp fresh, chopped thyme)
¾ tsp salt
2-3 bay leaves
½ cup beef stock (if necessary)
Heat the oil in a large skillet and sauté the beef until nicely browned. Transfer beef to a stew pot. In the same skillet, fry together the onion and garlic, adding a little more oil if required. Sprinkle the onions with flour and stir to distribute. Add in the beer and spices. Add to the stew pot. Simmer gently for about 3 hours on top of the stove. If the stew starts to get dry, add ½ cup of beef stock and reduce heat slightly. Can also be cooked in the oven at 300°F for three hours (check at two hours and add stock if needed), or in a Crockpot for about 6-8 hours on low – in which case you will not likely need any stock.
Remove bay leaves. Check the stew before serving. If it needs thickening – use a tablespoon or two of flour mixed with ¼ cup water and stir briskly into the hot stew.
Serve over a bed of garlic mashed potatoes or Colcannon, with a simple vegetable dish like buttered carrots and peas, or green beans sautéed with garlic and lemon.